- Author's Response:The Code Is Central, but for How Long?
I very much appreciate the generous and thought-provoking reviews by Mark Katz, Robert Orttung and Ellen Powell, and Peter Rutland of The Code of Putinism. I cannot do justice to all of their observations, questions, and critiques, so I will concentrate on the following three issues: the extent to which Putinism is a departure from the system put in place by Vladimir Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Russia's relationship with China, and the future of Putinism.
First, however, I want to briefly reiterate my book's central claims, especially because Orttung and Powell contend that "an overall argument" is absent. The core of the argument is hiding in plain sight, right in the title: The "code of Putinism" is the collective mentality of Putin and his close associates. It is the set of ideas, habits, and emotions that guide key decisions in the realms of politics, economics, and foreign policy. Without comprehending this code, we cannot properly understand why nearly two decades of Putin's rule have resulted in a country that is both underperforming at home and overambitious abroad. Put simply, I set out to explain what Putin is up to. The overall argument is, for better or worse, very much focused on personality and leadership, and not on longue durée historical and structural forces, nor on social development and change.
Orttung and Powell agree with me that Putin's strong and personalistic rule has resulted in a weak and underperforming Russian state. They do not see this as much of a paradox, and I basically agree. Yet my argument challenges the widespread belief that Putin's dominance of Russian politics makes the state a pliable and potent tool in his hands. In the specialist community as well, it is sometimes argued that Putin has recreated a strong Russian state consistent with historical traditions.1 As I demonstrate in chapter 5, "How Russia Is Misruled," in many spheres of state activity, and particularly in comparison with its peers, the Russian state is poorly governed. This is a direct consequence of the weakening of [End Page 100] multiple formal institutions under Putin, who often prefers to rule in the mode of manual control.
The most direct challenge to at least part of my argument comes from Peter Rutland, who suggests that it is more accurate to say that the system created Putin, rather than the other way around. He rightly points out some important continuities between the Yeltsin and Putin eras, including clientelism and crony capitalism. Overall, though, the discontinuities seem more significant than the continuities, regardless of whether we are talking about the formal political system, informal clan relations, the relationship between big business and the state, or foreign policy. Let me provide a few examples.
Although Rutland agrees that Putin's Russia is more authoritarian than Yeltsin's, he declares that "most of the key features of Russian authoritarianism were introduced under Yeltsin," and wonders, "What did Putin add?" But to note, as Rutland does, that there were rigged elections under Yeltsin overlooks the much more important difference that national elections in the 1990s had uncertain outcomes; it was only under Putin that a national pattern of electoral fraud took hold, as the most detailed academic study of Russian electoral fraud shows.2 Since the early 2000s, there has never been any doubt about the ultimate winner in presidential and parliamentary elections. Opposition parties controlled a majority of seats in parliament for most of Yeltsin's presidency; now United Russia dominates national and regional politics, and even the so-called opposition parties are generally reliable allies of the Kremlin. And to say that there were "Kremlin-friendly television stations" under Yeltsin is to downplay just how greatly Russian television has changed under Putin. The two main media oligarchs from the 1990s were dispossessed and driven from the country in very short order under Putin, with control of these stations—and all other major national TV channels—either returned to the state or entrusted to his close personal associates.
Changes from Yeltsin to Putin have been equally dramatic in other spheres...