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Turning the screws - but will it work?

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With Aleksei Navalny on trial and other opposition leaders under threat, Vladimir Putin is relying more on the stick than the carrot to shore up his regime. Kirill Rogov points out the risks of this policy.   

Kirill Rogov
10 May 2013

Putin’s course since the crisis of winter 2011 and his re-election as president can be defined in one word: anti-perestroika. In Putin’s eyes Gorbachev was a loser, a weak ruler who did nothing right and caused the collapse of the USSR. Gorbachev’s mistake, he believes, was to give in to public demand for liberalisation, so starting a process that led in the end to his downfall. Putin, on the other hand, not only refuses to bow to any pressure from below, but is in fact determined to retain power by tightening the screws.

Putin’s choice of an anti-perestroika strategy is a natural one for him. Russian conservative mythology, which sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’, likes to contrast Andropov’s political line (right but unfinished) with Gorbachev’s (wrong). Putin would like to rerun the same old scenario, with himself in the role of Andropov, but with a different development of the plot and a suitably uplifting finale.

'The main problem with a boiler isn’t the screws, but the pressure level of the steam inside. You can’t maintain a steep increase in living standards at a time when your economic system is in decline.'

It is probably a mistake to see a situation solely from your own perspective. Gorbachev’s problem, as I see it, was not that he went for liberalisation, but that there was no easy solution to the country’s economic problems, and his attempt at liberalisation – an effort  to involve the public in solving these problems, to unload some of the responsibility onto them – led to a rapid loss of governability and the collapse of the Soviet administrative machine. The political system was insufficiently adaptable for his purposes.

And it is quite probable that Putin, as he tightens the screws today, is not writing a new plot devlopment, but repeating the old one. When it becomes clear that you can’t release tension by tightening screws and you have to loosen them instead, the chances are that you ruin the thread. Because of course the main problem with a boiler isn’t the screws, but the pressure level of the steam inside. Tightening the screws doesn’t help because it has no effect on the pressure levels. You can’t maintain a steep increase in living standards at a time when your economic system is in decline. And when it turns out that you can’t resolve this contradiction by tightening screws, the system can once again change overnight from tightly-controlled to uncontrollable.            

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Tough measures are the name of the game these days, but are they contributing to a pressure-cooker type scenario? Photo: (cc) Flickr/Jedimentat44

This scenario is a highly probable one, and is the main risk of the policy chosen by Putin. Tightening the screws annoys the general public and particular groups within it, and you can’t even compensate for this by rewarding other groups, those loyal to you, with big bonuses. Putin, in other words, is heading for a situation where his instruments and system of government will be completely discredited unless it can deliver the goods in economic terms.   

The loyalty of the elites and the effectiveness of institutions

Putin is of the firm belief that you can control any situation if you have effective institutions, but the point is that they have to be effective, and what worked well at a time of growth can lose its shine in a period of economic stagnation. The regime has in fact already entered a phase of reduced effectiveness and governability. You only have to look at prestigious super-projects such as the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics or the APEC 2012 forum in Vladivostok.  $20 billion was spent on that, and still nothing worked properly: lifts stopped at the second floor and so on, and now we see the same thing happening in Sochi – soaring costs and increasing chaos.

It is interesting to ask why some authoritarian institutions work better than others. In Jason Brownlee’s recent book Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance’, one can read a very detailed and convincing explanation of why Hosni Mubarak’s regime was stable and effective. Which is all very useful – although you need to remember that Mubarak is now behind bars. The effectiveness of authoritarian institutions is a two-way street, depending not only on the efforts of government but on the position of elite groups and their level of loyalty. Because there is more than one kind of loyalty: There is the long-term kind, when you understand that the regime is there for the foreseeable future and that however lowly your place in the structure, you’re better off inside than out. But there is also the short-term version, when opportunism and defection lurk behind a facade of loyalty. If the elites believe in the long term stability of a regime, they back it even if their rewards are not high. If, however, this belief starts to waver they will maintain their facade of loyalty while concentrating on the lining of their own pockets. So institutions become less effective.

If we add to this the fact that government income is dropping - no extra oil money compared to last year, no economic growth and so no increase in tax revenue - then we can see that there is no chance for the elites to squeeze more out of the system. And this creates an atmosphere of tension and dissatisfaction between the regime and its loyal elites. At the same time, the decline in the system’s effectiveness leads to disillusionment among the public, which in its turn demoralises the elites still further.  

If the elites believe in the long term stability of a regime, they back it even if their rewards are not high. If, however, this belief starts to waver they will maintain a facade of loyalty while concentrating on the lining of their own pockets. So institutions become less effective.

This growing sense of the ineffectiveness of the regime can best be seen in the changing public perception of corruption. Opinion polls show that people’s assessment of corruption levels in the Putin regime rose steeply in 2010, after which his popularity ratings dropped sharply. This doesn’t mean that bribery and corruption levels actually doubled in 2010, but merely that people had become more aware of the regime’s inefficiency and that’s what they put it down to.

Rifts in the elites + resentment in the masses = predictable unpredictability 

Everyone is aware today that political cataclysms and radical change are linked to rifts in the elites. These rifts, however, happen at a late stage in the scenario, at the start of the denouement, just before the political crisis and regime failure. Before any rifts appear, you have a period of complex realignment within the elites, where internecine conflict is in any case always present. When an authoritarian system is stable, the elites have only one way to resolve conflict – they turn to the one and only arbiter, the man at the top. When the system becomes less stable, they realise that they need different ways of influencing the situation, because the man at the top is no longer in control of the situation. And there’s a fine dividing line between these two states. Putin enjoys controllable clashes - the long term conflict between Rosneft and Gazprom in the mid 2000s was one such. Controllable conflicts can only strengthen his position, by demonstrating his role as the only arbiter. But you can never tell when something might spin out of control, and what it might lead to.

On the other hand, the last few years have quite unexpectedly shown how regime change can begin with pressure from below. At first it seems that everyone has become accustomed to a situation which is bad but stable: no one is surprised by corruption; everyone is used to unfairness and infringement of the law and to the less than legal behaviour of those who enjoy power of any kind. But then one day an apparently chance event sets off an uncontrollable process. In December 2010 a desperately frustrated young street vendor in Tunisia immolates himself in the street and sparks protest all over the Middle East. Or a crusading journalist disappears in Ukraine. It might be forgotten in a few weeks, but in the case of Georgiy Gongadze it took on a momentum of its own and eventually triggered the Orange Revolution.

Putin enjoys controllable clashes - the long term conflict between Rosneft and Gazprom in the mid 2000s was one such. Controllable conflicts strengthen his position, by demonstrating his role as the only arbiter. But you can never tell when something might spin out of control, and what it might lead to.

We don’t know when and if it will explode. But you can already feel the tension among the elites and the disorientation of society. And you can see it in our Parliament – MPs seem to be sitting round in corners with their trousers down. It’s quite clear that today’s political regime in Russia is very different from that of the mid 2000s.

Of course our relatively good present economic situation is a mitigating factor. Our oil and gas exports in 2011 were 50% up on those of the prosperous year of 2007, and stayed at that level in 2012, although that still didn’t secure us a similar level of growth either in the economy or in income, and so Putin and United Russia’s popularity plummeted at the same time. When your popularity drops at the peak of your prosperity, there are serious reasons for it and it has serious consequences, and it reveals a systemic loss of efficiency in the use of resources.  

The logic of repression     

The thing about Putin is that he likes to take things slowly, to avoid too much public and opposition reaction. Even the process of sending Khodorkovsky to prison lasted a long time: six months passed between the beginning of the YUKOS case and Khodorkovsky’s arrest, and another year and a half before he was finally sentenced.  It’s the same thing with Navalny now; eventually he will end up in prison, but they’ll spin it out to allow the public to get used to the idea. That’s how Putin works: he has his goals and he will reach them, and anyone who thinks he’ll stop halfway is making a big mistake.

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With charisma and popular appeal, Aleksey Navalny is for Putin a different kind of foe to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Roma Yandolin

In Navalny’s case it’s important for Putin to demonstrate that you can’t declare war on him and expect to get away with it. He is hoping this show of force will avoid the need for a large scale crackdown that the public may not be ready for and that might trigger a similarly large scale protest. It’s important that people should feel threatened, but that it shouldn’t lead to a mass outcry and a mobilisation of the public will. So Putin is handling the rout of his enemy with great caution, stressing the exceptional nature of this particular case and allowing the elites and the public time to absorb the message that such a reprisal is inevitable.

'Putin likes to take things slowly, to avoid too much public and opposition reaction. Navalny will eventually end up in prison, but they’ll spin it out to allow the public to get used to the idea.'

The trick worked with Khodorkovsky. The elites handed him over, hoping to protect themselves, and only then realised that they were all in the same boat. The situation with Navalny is more complicated; he has a much greater potential to turn into a popular hero. So now it is not Putin’s antagonist (Khodorkovsky), but Putin himself that has to account for himself. With Khodorkovsky it was Putin who was ‘our guy’ – with Navalny it’s the opposite. For Putin the Navalny case is the line dividing his regime from a dictatorship. The roles of repression and popular support in ensuring the further stability of the regime are changing places. The role of repression is becoming crucial, because all hope of support is fading.   

Part of a 5-part oDR expert symposium on Putin's third term. See other contributions:

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