19.05.23 Future Discussion

The Disappearance Dilemma: Post-Putin Russia must begin before Putin leaves

Kirill Rogov
Director of the Re:Russia Project, Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna
Kirill Rogov

The notion that Russia's future should be considered only after the departure of Putin is becoming increasingly entrenched in the minds of the Russian elite. But the expectation that this departure will provide a window of opportunity may not come to fruition. Modern personalist regimes rely less on the charisma of their leaders than on the institutions of personalism, which can be maintained and 'passed on' to the next dictator without undue stress or upheaval. At the same time, the sceptics believe that Putinism will inevitably outlive Putin and that nothing will change in Russia anyway’; a view that does not seem entirely convincing. They underestimate the potential for modernisation and westernisation that has been built up in Russian society over the course of the post-Soviet decades and which, despite the regime's best efforts, remains a social norm for many in Russia. Any attempt to plunge this stratum of the population and the country’s elites into militaristic obscurantism will be met with strong resistance. The real question is when and how this part of society will find grounds for solidarity.

Kirill Rogov's article on these questions continues Re:Russia's series on potential scenarios for a post-Putin Russia. This began with Nikita Savin's article ‘Putinism without Putin’ and continued with Andrei Yakovlev's article ‘Post-Putinism: how and why is it useful to discuss it today?’ (Russian only)

Is democratisation possible and is the West wrong?

Much of the thinking within the Russian elite has turned to considering possible options for Russia's post-Putin future. It is more or less obvious that nothing will change under Putin, no matter what happens. The question is simply what will replace him when his tenure does come to an end?

However, the concept of ‘Putinism at a dead end’ is presented in discussions alongside criticism of the West's overly radical position, which does not envisage or believe that there are any positive scenarios for post-Putinism. This intransigence implies that even if Putin were to leave office, Russia will be unable to return to ‘normality, let alone along the path of democratisation and partnership with the West. Putinism without Putin is the scenario that seems both most desirable to a certain part of the current Russian elite and the most likely outcome for many Western experts and politicians. 

With this approach, Western strategy towards Russia becomes invariable: regardless of whether Putin stays or goes (about which there is no point in speculating), Western policy should aim at the long-term containment, isolation and weakening of Russia. A ‘fence’ should be built, if not around it, then at least along its western borders.

From the point of view of the opposition-minded Russian elites, this is another mistake on the part of the West. The West should have opted for a more flexible strategy, one that did not push Russian elites towards Putin's inevitability, but offered them a way out and encouraged them to seek an alternative. By the same logic, proponents of this view advocate a more nuanced approach to individual sanctions and the development of an exit mechanism for members of the business class who have ‘gone over to the good side’.

Regardless of how events unfold, thinking and speculating about options for the future is imperative, and as this issue increasingly occupies people's minds, it becomes a political reality in its own right. These assumptions become clearer and take on more collective forms in the minds of elites, and then become the framework and basis for the strategies that these people build. These assumptions are used to make investments, to choose ‘friends’ and ‘allies’, and to send signals to those around them and to clients. Thus, expectations and imagined scenarios begin to influence and shape reality, even if they are not intended to do so. 

The two questions posed above, which figure prominently in elite deliberations, thus boil down to: first, is the post-Putin democratisation or normalisation of Russia possible, and second, how justified is the West's rigid position, which is reluctant to develop a strategy that would even take such a possibility into account? As a result, opinions lean towards one pole or the other: some believe that normalisation is possible and that the West's position is short-sighted; others believe that this position is quite reasonable because the possibility of democratisation has been ruled out. It seems to me that, paradoxically, the answer to both questions must be positive: normalisation is possible and the West's uncompromising position is rational.

The question of will and the politicisation of elites

The West's position, which does not see post-Putin democratisation as a realistic scenario that should be taken into account in its strategy for relations with Russia, seems perfectly rational. And, its rationality is based on a simple and important consideration — we do not currently observe any willingness among Russian citizens to implement post-Putin democratisation and, more importantly, we do not see this among Russian elites.

At best, the latter are turning to the West and asking whether it would consider the fact that they, too, secretly (in their oligarchic kitchens) detest Putin, and whether the West would provide them with some kind of guarantee on this flimsy basis. Otherwise, they will have no choice but to return to Putin with their capital and help him in his dirty dealings.

It is hard to imagine a more lame or politically damaging message. It makes little sense for the West to bet on people who demand that their interests be taken into account, by threatening to side with the enemy if they do not, all on the simple grounds of ‘what else can we do?’ And this is not a question of moralism, but of the fact that these people lack the will to rein in Putin and the political course associated with him, and therefore lack political subjectivity. Therefore, they are of no use to the West, for which such containment is a strategic goal. Thus, betting on them makes no sense.

This, it bears repeating, is not about moralism. Political scientists and public intellectuals in Russia have often spoken of the importance of ‘politicising’ the Russian population. The idea that Putinism is based on its apolitical nature, on the indifference of the population to political participation, has become common knowledge. However, the question of whether the Russian elite is politicised is rarely, if ever, discussed.

Apoliticality has been a universal and obligatory principle of access to the Russian elite for the past twenty years. And, this demand for apoliticality remains one of the fundamental principles of Putinism. It deprives the elite that does not belong to Putin's inner circle of its subjectivity and the benefits that come with cooperation, and thus renders them dependent and helpless. Apoliticality deprives the elites of an important channel of trust and coordination, as well as the possibility of autonomous communication with the nation and the creation of its own political agenda. Such communication remains the exclusive privilege of the authoritarian leader. 

This is, in fact, the basis of personal authoritarianism, in this case Putin's. This principle makes the authoritarian leader the sole subject on the political stage, surrounded by a faceless mass of apolitical extras. And the agenda imposed on them becomes the only one possible.

While this core stratum of the Russian elite lacks the will and capacity for cooperation and subjectivity, the pro-Putin part of the elite, which has embraced imperial militarism, in a sense does possess this capacity, and has also mastered the skills of governance and domination. They have learnt the simple lessons of authoritarianism: one only needs to demonstrate the will to kill, imprison and deprive a few defiant people of resources in order to coerce the rest of the apolitical masses into complete loyalty and total lack of will. These institutions of authoritarian rule have been built and are functioning well in contemporary Russia. It is unclear why and how they would disappear, or where they would go in the event of Putin's miraculous disappearance.

The Golden Statue: Transitory Personalism

It is important to note a common misconception at this point. Political scientists often argue that personalist dictatorships are worse than other types of political regimes at dealing with the issue of the succession of power. While there is some merit to this claim, it is by no means as comprehensive as many would have us believe. The experience of post-Soviet personalist regimes, for example, suggests the opposite. While the transition may be turbulent, the institutions of repression recover quickly once a new leader has built his coalition and demonstrated the will to use it.

In the three Central Asian dictatorships that have experienced the departure of their founding fathers, we see new leaders reproducing scenarios and patterns of elite consolidation that are literally identical to those of their predecessors: taking over the security agencies by appointing people personally loyal to them, arresting several members of the former leaders' inner circle, establishing manipulative control over ‘elections’ and ‘parliament’, and manipulating the constitution and the terms of governance. Initially, in the consolidation phase, such a leader will even make limited concessions by agreeing to roll back some formal restrictions. But this is only done to reassure the restless and to gather a coalition of dominance under his banner, only to quell discontent once this has been done.

The example of Turkmenistan demonstrates just how easy it is to cut down a golden statue of the former great leader and replace it with a golden statue of the new leader without anyone batting an eyelid, as if they had not noticed the change at all. 

The fact is that modern personalist dictators, whether post-Soviet leaders or Chairman Xi, are not exactly charismatic populists who captivate the nation with fiery speeches and visions of the future, but rather they are dull bureaucrats whose power is based on manipulating elites and the ability to build coalitions of repression without making too much fuss.

In other words, a modern personalist dictatorship is a set of institutions and practices of repression and manipulation. And this set of institutions is, to use academic language, transitive, that is it cannot be reversed with the disappearance of the previous patron, but can be easily restored with the arrival of a credible coalition of new patrons. And the population is quite loyal to such a transition, entrusting the new ‘King of the Mountain’ with their hopes of ‘maintaining stability’.

The disappearance of a personalist dictator does not mean the disappearance of the personalist dictatorship, or even that it must go through a period of crisis (although for some of the former inner circle it may end in prison and deposition). A crisis is possible if the former elite pyramid is already sufficiently polarised and politicised. Otherwise, the institutions of personalism simply acquire new masters, and the elites, who are accustomed to subjugation, pledge themselves to the new golden statue.

In this sense, the will to change course and the process of elite politicisation are key factors and signs of a possible turnaround, while the hypothetical disappearance of Putin may in itself be a far less significant event once it happens than it seems to many today.  

Moreover, elite politicisation in the early stages does not mean there will be any big declarations, let alone liberal rhetoric. Rather, we will sense it in the inherently vague vibrations and conflicts that make their way into the public arena. In this sense, Prigozhin's attacks on elements of the political and military bureaucracy can be seen as the first and only sign of politicisation thus far, forcing the elites to make sense of this new reality.

Will Russia Become an Orthodox Iran?

Nevertheless, the normalisation of Russia, and its partial democratisation in the foreseeable future, seems like a plausible scenario. In the absence of an apparent will to change (not a desire to change, but a will), Russia has serious structural prerequisites for its transformation not into a consolidated democracy, of course, but into a semi-democratic, moderate, pragmatic regime based on a compromise between the more conservative and more liberal factions within the elites and the population.

The notion that, over the past twenty years, Russia has systematically moved towards what it is today is an enormous oversimplification, if not a retrospective distortion. On the contrary, throughout this period Russia has experienced a parallel process of multifaceted economic and social modernisation on the one hand, and a monopolisation and contraction of the political sphere on the other. The many signs and characteristics of this process of Russian modernisation are described in detail in Daniel Treisman's article ‘The Reverse Evolution of a Spin Dictatorship’, which I would encourage all those interested to read.

In general, we can say that, by the end of the 2010s, Russia looked like a country with a fairly high level of education, a per capita income above the global average, a large share of the population living in megacities, and with diversified and fairly modern labour markets. It seemed like a country that was rather westernised in its social practices, future-oriented expectations and market ambitions, with a strong and resilient civil sector and even a trend towards the repoliticisation of broad social groups, especially young people living in megacities.

At the same time, throughout this period, there was a marked increase in the violent redistribution of wealth, the expansion of rent-seeking networks and patronage pyramids, and increasingly those engaged in these practices captured decision-making centres and political institutions,becoming more and more aggressive. The emerging polarisation of society was most visible in the information sphere: Russia was increasingly divided into a Russia of social media and a Russia of television, and the regime increasingly lost informational and ideological control over the younger generations, while retaining their hold on the older age groups.

In a sense, the war unleashed against Ukraine was an attempt to resolve this emerging conflict, an attack by an authoritarian ‘power party’ against Ukraine, the West and the ‘internal West’ simultaneously. The latter has remained one of the permanent organic components of the Russian elite and Russian identity throughout its history.

However, it is not just a question of general structural conditions, i.e. the objective social characteristics of Russian society in no way correspond to the plans to turn Russia into Northern Turkmenistan or an Orthodox Iran. There is also the question of timing. Military setbacks and intense external pressure are forcing the Kremlin to accelerate its efforts at social archaisation and authoritarian dehumanisation within Russian society. And, this push is not a sign of strength but of weakness, as the regime seeks to compensate for its failures in other areas and its fears of a loss of domestic control.

For much of his presidency, Putin has been fairly cautious about moving towards autocracy. In his twentieth year in power, opposition media and politicians still had channels with millions of viewers, and there were mass political protests in the capital, attracting as many as 100,000 people — a situation rarely seen in consolidated personalist dictatorships. This caution was dictated by the desire to avoid alienating and losing the loyalty of the depoliticised technocratic elites and the support of the average depoliticised consumerist Russian citizen. This caution has now been completely discarded not as a result of a conscious change of strategy, but rather as a forced reaction to setbacks. 

The social order that the Kremlin is now hastily attempting to impose on Russia seems unnatural. By predominantly mobilising the most socially backward groups, it is essentially attempting to force demodernisation, demoralising the elites and inconveniencing ordinary people. The threat this poses to the former, and the sense of danger and discomfort it causes to the latter, may generate considerable resistance. All this creates the conditions necessary for ‘blowback’ — the desire of society to move in the opposite direction, to compensate for this distortion.

It is unlikely that, at this moment, anyone will be able to make a non-random prediction of the timing and form of this ‘blowback’. But the structural and social conditions are certainly in place in Russia. Even if there are no visible signs of mobilisation among groups previously loyal to the regime, they may be discouraged by the abrupt collapse of familiar social norms and standards.