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  • Reading RussiaTools of Autocracy
  • Vitali Silitski (bio)

Controversy may continue to rage about how and why the Russian political system has reached its current state, but it is not hard to say what that state is. Much of the confusion about the proper definition to attach to Russia's regime and those resembling it arises from a lingering tendency to see otherwise-authoritarian systems that offer a degree of multiparty electoral competition as diminished forms of democracy.

Arguably a flawed democracy in the 1990s, Russia took a distinctly authoritarian turn under President Vladimir Putin from 2000 to 2008. The country now lives under a façade democracy that barely conceals the political and administrative dominance of a self-interested bureaucratic corporation. This corporation is not immune to factional squabbles and internal games over power and wealth, but its basic instinct for self-preservation has been enough to keep it relatively unified.

The current regime fits the classic definition of authoritarianism, which places more emphasis on what the system lacks than on what it has. Thus Russia today displays all the facets of "limited . . . political pluralism,"1 including a system of formal multiparty electoral competition that for most of the last decade has been deprived of unpredictability. Incumbents have no reason to sweat on election night, even if they must work hard between elections in order to make sure that no serious challengers can emerge. Hence, Russia's authoritarianism can no longer be regarded as competitive.2

Russia's autocracy is also typical to the extent that it does not rely upon an "elaborate and guiding ideology," but is heavily grounded in "distinctive mentalities,"3 meaning a specific political culture that justifies [End Page 42] strong centralized authority through the use of extensive references to history, faith, and identity. Likewise, it does not rely upon broad or intense political mobilization, except in selected instances, as when the Kremlin recruited youth groups such as Nashi for a time as part of a strategy to prevent any Russian replay of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. (Authorities easily demobilized Nashi later.)

As is the case with most other contemporary autocratic regimes, Russia's rulers claim that their country is a democracy. In dealing with opponents, today's autocracies tend to avoid wholesale force and open repression, preferring instead to rule via manufactured consent. The manufacture of consent involves three major tools. The first is "political technology," which is shorthand for information and propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting and destroying opponents before they even enter the political contest. The Russian elite truly pioneered the application of political technology, and worked to spread it widely in the post-Soviet arena. In the minds of those who run the Kremlin, this is nothing to be ashamed of: They simply cannot imagine a political system working differently. In their view, the spontaneity that one seems to observe in Western democracies is a product of the same elite consensus and fixing, through which outsiders are marginalized. Western rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law is spurned as a cynical attempt to open up political space for outsiders who enjoy foreign backing.

The second tool is a more concrete form of preemption.4 Like regimes elsewhere in the post-Soviet space such as those of Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the Russian regime routinely attacks potential opponents with more than just rhetoric and propaganda. In the mid-2000s, with a strong economy and the approval ratings to go with it, the Kremlin began implementing measures not only to discredit and demoralize the opposition with hostile propaganda, but also to strip it of anything like a level playing field and, when necessary, to remove it physically from the scene. This last goal may be pursued by simply disqualifying opposition figures from running for office, but also by jailing them, forcing them into exile, or even, in extreme cases, murdering them. Quick to shut down opponents in politics as well as in business and the bureaucracy, Putin's Kremlin also freely twists election rules and party legislation so that no one of whom it does not approve can even enter the contest for power. Today, the Kremlin enjoys a free hand...