- Reading RussiaThe Merger of Power and Property
The regime in Russia today is authoritarian. The executive is the only branch with real power, no fair competition for votes is permitted, and the institutional channels for effective political opposition are completely blocked. The authoritarianism is of the "softer" variety, however. With notable exceptions, the regime has preferred to bribe, intimidate, or marginalize critics rather than actually jail or kill them. Like a classic authoritarian (as opposed to totalitarian) regime, it tolerates all manner of private liberties and freedoms (including the freedom to publish), so long as none of these affects national politics in any significant way.
Power and property are merged at the top. The regime has exhibited strong tendencies toward what Max Weber called "sultanism," meaning by this a type of authoritarianism distinguished by patronage, nepotism, and cronyism. In early February 2008, Russia's finest business daily, Vedomosti, estimated that the "political and personal allies" of the president headed the boards of companies that together accounted for 40 percent of the country's economy. The assets thus controlled by long-term associates of Putin from his days in the KGB and the St. Petersburg mayor's office include Gazprom; the Rosneft oil company; Channel One (the largest television network); railways; a key cellphone company; and the oil-export monopoly. In contrast with the "oligarchy" of the 1990s, which was open to anyone with enough money, this arrangement, to continue with Weber's simile, is more like a closed janissary caste.
Although most of the key elements of the political and economic order have been seen before, their merging under one institutional roof is certainly not a common sight. Russia strangely commingles, for instance, key features of a capitalist economy with a political system wherein [End Page 66] power is monopolized by a close-knit professional and age cohort whose members often have a background in the secret police. Personal liberties are allowed, some political liberties are tolerated, and the economy—or at least its "nonstrategic" sectors—is open to private entrepreneurship. Appeals to nationalism and national pride are part of the regime's rhetorical stock in trade, but in practice the power holders accede to the realities of economic globalization, and seem little interested in attempting any steps aimed at slowing or reversing that process.
Almost by definition, the regime is unstable. It has no well-elaborated ideology, and it permits private liberties. It has also kept up the semblance of modern democratic institutions (parties, elections, parliament, the judiciary, the media, the lawful opposition), yet has hollowed them out and subverted them to the point where they will most likely not be able to help maintain legitimacy and stability if there is a crisis. Instead of seeking to ground its legitimacy on broad-based, transpersonal institutions with character and integrity of their own, the regime has chosen to bank overwhelmingly on Vladimir Putin's popularity. This, in turn, seems to derive from the economic growth that he presided over between 2000 and the first half of 2008. Russia today (like China) seems to offer a classic example of what Samuel Huntington called "performance legitimacy." If that is the case, then the current global economic downturn—in which Russia is poised between a somewhat nastier version of the worldwide malaise and a "perfect storm"—could hold dire implications for the regime.
At any rate, a definitive natural experiment testing the connection between the country's economic performance and the regime's political legitimacy is now unfolding before our eyes. This does not necessarily mean that economic crisis will immediately crumple the regime. While it may weaken or even destabilize the regime, the crisis could also force the Kremlin to adopt a harder version of authoritarianism as part of its effort to survive. Thus we are likely to witness a significant transformation of the regime, in one direction or another, not in a decade or two but within the next couple of years. In order to survive, the regime might have to widen the bases of its legitimacy (currently confined to Putin's ratings and economic growth) by softening the censorship on television, reopening the system to political...