Is Russia Really That Authoritarian?

Russia, according to the Western news media, is increasingly slipping toward totalitarianism. The man allegedly pulling all the strings is Russian President Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB operative and apparatchik extraordinaire. This misconception of Putin as a powerful dictator whose control over his citizens must be countered through punitive measures is deeply ingrained. The myth is embraced by journalists and politicians alike.

According to Le Point, “Putin is endlessly displaying his might.” His government, according to The Guardian‘s Marc Rice-Oxley, is more “brazen and confident” than it ever was in the 1990s. Max Boot reiterated the repetitive claim in another syndicated column: “Having taken power in a nascent democracy six years ago, Putin has been reestablishing authoritarian control.” And to “secure” that “control,” The Independent editorialized, Putin “knew where to turn for help”—none other than the siloviki (power elite) of the former KGB. He is, in the words of Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Biden, “a one-man dictatorship” who “continues to consolidate power” in Russia.

While all myths, including this one, have origins in reality, Putin’s perceived might can lead policymakers to dangerous oversimplifications. But how do these perceptions arise, what is the real state of Putin’s administration, and how harmful can this myth of total control really be for policy-makers in Washington and Europe?

Origins of the Myth

Journalists covering Russia can hardly be blamed for interviewing the sources closest at hand—usually those with a good command of English, contacts with the West, and a deep distrust of the current Kremlin crew. While perhaps well meaning, such editorial policy, particularly in the case of American media, succumbs to the tendency to dumb down what it cannot grasp. As such, the news media often censures concepts that fail to fit into the familiar dichotomy of dictatorship vs. democracy. Of course, this simplification applies practically to any country outside the West’s scope. But given its size and energy potential, Russia is a particularly fertile breeding ground for grandiose theories and myths regarding power grabs and malign leaders.

The fault lies not only with simplifying journalists. The myth derives as well from the self-serving perspective of Russia’s failed reformers. “Russia’s liberal opposition has a vested interest in feeding this myth,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a prominent expert (and former dissident) with the Institute for Globalization Studies. “First, it helps them get help from abroad. Second, it helps explain away the failures of the liberal opposition itself. Instead of saying, ‘We didn’t offer anything that the people could support and that is why we failed,’ they end up saying that a fascist regime kept them from getting there and that everything is so terrible they couldn’t have done anything in the first place.”

Fed these perspectives, the West still perceives Russia’s political playing field mainly as a struggle between pro-Kremlin forces and a Western-leaning, liberal, pro-market opposition. Meanwhile in Russia itself, the liberal opposition is marginalized. Its representation in the media, where it still has access to the printed page, exaggerates its influence among the population.

Who Rules Russia?

Instead of a one-man dictatorship, experts close to the Kremlin administration, as well as pro-Kremlin ideologues, describe a struggling, fractured corporation that at best is trying to become transparent and at worst is acting directly against the national interest. That the Kremlin’s “propaganda machine” is willing to take such a grim view of things should be a signal that Putin’s power, and Russia’s government, is far less strong and stable than Western observers care to admit.

Stanislav Belkovsky of the National Strategy Institute is perhaps the chief proponent of this corporate view of the Kremlin. What is ascribed to Putin’s KGB past and his siloviki-saturated government, Belkovsky argues, is actually the legacy of the putatively liberal tenure of Yeltsin. “In the beginning of the 1990s, when the seemingly immortal KGB fell apart, many agents became in demand outside of the system … because of their value as a qualified … work force,” Belkovsky writes. “As the post-Soviet security structures continued to fall into disarray, the specialists that had survived physically began to leave Lubyanka to take up civilian posts—not just in the government, but in purely commercial structures as well.”

As for the allegations regarding Putin’s anti-liberal track record, Belkovsky describes how under the current administration “privatization has gone further than [former vice-premier Anatoly] Chubais could have ever imagined during the early 1990s.” The Yukos affair, in which the Russian government threw entrepreneur and Yukos oil company head Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail, was less a tightening of political control, Belkovsky argues, than the result of various bureaucratic clans vying for a piece of the energy pie.

Is Putin, then, a powerful CEO taking charge of his company or a weak corporate leader held hostage by an increasingly powerful bureaucracy of institutional players? “The bureaucracy is spreading,” Kagarlitsky told me. “It is very involved in business. And in the West this is understood as lack of business freedom in Russia—as though all business is controlled by bureaucracy. In reality it’s the other way around—the more the bureaucracy is involved in business, the more each bureaucrat becomes a hostage of the business interests he’s involved in.” In the end, it is hard to say whether Putin controls Gazprom and Lukoil, or whether Gazprom and Lukoil control Putin.

Viktor Militarev, a colleague of Belkovsky at the National Strategy Institute, also argues that Putin’s possibilities are limited. Although conceding an increase in authoritarian tendencies during Putin’s administration, Militarev points out that “a majority of the population would be willing to forgive Putin this ‘managed democracy’ if those very authoritarian tendencies were directed at raising the standard of living.” As for Putin’s alleged consolidation of vertical power, Militarev adds, “That is all Western nonsense. Putin can’t even fire [Mikhail] Zurabov,” the current minister of health and social development, despite a series of corruption scandals and demands for his sacking by the ruling party in the parliament.

If this is true, then Putin’s control over his ministers is considerably limited. He can’t issue directives for his ministers to follow in part because his ministers don’t control their people either. The chain of command, in other words, is broken. This failure to assert vertical hierarchies of authority can be seen in the new practice of appointing regional governors rather than electing them. In this view, the new governors face the same problem at the regional level that Putin faces at the top. As Kagarlitsky puts it, “Either the new governor has to fire everyone and appoint his own people, or he must come to terms with the fact that he only controls what’s going on in his office, while real life is in the corridors, and he has no control over that.” The Stalinist system of one-man rule and even the Leninist concept of partiinost—following the party’s directive—simply do not apply. Instead, several bureaucracies of power based in personal clans contend for power. And whatever authority Putin once commanded to forge coalitions has been significantly diminished by his announcement that he will step down in 2008.

The Near Abroad

Another perception in the West is that Putin’s Kremlin is taking a more muscular stance toward the post-Soviet territories, known in Russia as the “near abroad.” The current government has reinforced this perception that it is attempting to reestablish influence in former Soviet republics—particularly the more Western-leaning ones like Georgia and Ukraine—with aggressive rhetoric of its own. Russia’s approach to its neighbors has proven more worrisome to Europe and Washington than the president’s harsh policies at home.

But some analysts in Russia are questioning this stance as well. According to political analyst Alexander Khramchikhin, who writes for Russky Zhournal, which is run by the pro-Kremlin think tank Foundation for Effective Politics, Russia’s foreign policy clout declined not during the Yeltsin era but under Gorbachev and his foreign minister Eduard Shevarnadze. Yeltsin, not Putin, reestablished Russia as a prominent player in the world arena. Khramchikhin cites such “achievements” as Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight and the use of Russia’s Black Sea fleet to quell unrest in Georgia in fall 1993. “It was then that Russian peacekeepers appeared in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and showed themselves to be the only effective peacekeepers in the world,” writes Khramchikhin. “Russian soldiers were prepared to kill and be killed, and that is exactly how they were able to quickly stop the bloodshed in Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan.”

Whatever the validity of Khramchikhin’s assessment of Yeltsin’s operations in the near abroad—as well as Russia’s minor standoff with NATO troops over Kosovo—such activism does contrast sharply with Putin’s administration, which has made concessions to withdraw bases from Georgia and other CIS countries. “It was Putin who made Washington the source of legitimacy for post-Soviet regimes,” concurs Belkovsky. “Even under Yeltsin the source of that legitimacy was Moscow: not a single leader in the former USSR could feel safe if he had deliberately turned his back to the Kremlin. Now … the position of the Kremlin doesn’t really interest anyone.”

As for the recent “gas wars” that are widely viewed as Russia exercising its energy muscle, analyst Mikhail Delyagin, who actually laments Russia’s loss of control in the post-Soviet sphere, writes in Yezhednevny Zhurnal: “The principle approach of Russia’s bureaucracy toward the CIS is absolutely correct: if you are truly independent then pay for your gas like independent countries and not like satellites.” According to the Western argument, Russia is “bullying” its neighbors by threatening to raise the price of the gas it sells to the near abroad. But this argument gets it backwards. By the time the “gas wars” are over and the agreements are signed, Ukraine and Belarus walk away without the subsidized energy benefits that they enjoyed as satellites. In the economic sense, Moscow loses leverage. By weaning Ukraine and Belarus from Russia’s gas and gradually forcing these “sovereign states” to pay for their energy resources like any other country, Moscow is undermining the cohesion of the CIS and giving a clear signal to its former “satellites” that they are on their own. Without the concessions of cheap gas, there is little that Moscow can demand in return.

It is certainly open to debate which policy—Yeltsin’s or Putin’s—was the wiser. But given its professed fears of expanding Russian influence, the West appears to be responding not so much to the Kremlin’s muscular policy as to its muscular rhetoric. That rhetoric, in turn, may actually reflect a loss of control rather than a surge of power.

The Dangers of Misinterpretation

Russia is neither the first nor the last country to be direly misunderstood in the West. In this case what makes Russia unique is its size and its energy potential, and also the fact that Putin’s government still faces west, whatever it mumbles to domestic television audiences. A destabilized Russia following the 2008 elections means a destabilized world oil producer, which has major implications for the global economy.

The dangers of misinterpretations are two-fold. First, a weak argument often generates an equally weak counter-argument. With the abundance of negative spin in the Western media, some non-conformists are apt to wax apologetic about a president who allegedly is no more authoritarian than his American counterpart, and to accuse the United States of judging Russia according to double standards. Instead of assessing Russia on its own terms, such apologists turn Russia’s government into a mere argument in the slew of accusations against the Bush administration. Neil Clark, of The Guardian, writes, for instance: “Even though Putin has acquiesced in the expansion of American influence in the former Soviet republic, the limited steps the Russian president has taken to defend his country’s interests have proved too much for Washington’s empire builders.” According to this argument, the first thing to consider when joining the “current wave of Putin-bashing” is whose cause these “Russophobes” are serving. When dialogue comes down to either criticizing Putin for being a dictator or defending him for being a dictator, there is little room left for a sober assessment of where Russia as a whole is heading.

Second, when Western op-ed columnists call for a tougher stance toward the Russian leadership in advance of summits and state visits, and when newspapers like The Guardian publish editorials with titles like “The Rise and Rise of Putin Power,” the signal to Western policymakers is clear: there is much to fear from a strong Russia with a control-freak president. In the end, this overestimation of the might of Putin and the Kremlin in dictating the fate of 140 million people obscures the very real dangers of a weak, dilapidated Russia. Amid talk of a nation turning into a police state, the recent ethnic clashes in Kondopoga, rampant crime and corruption, and a demoralized army that is in the news only on the occasion of brutal hazing incidents—all suggest that the police have a great deal less control over the state than either Western pundits or Russian law enforcement officials themselves would like to believe.

Most importantly, however, policymakers and Western businesses are themselves unwittingly buying into a deterministic, top-down management system for Russia—and hence perpetuating it. The rights abuses decried by watchdog groups and the media do exist, and Vladimir Putin, as president, inevitably takes the blame. The problem arises, however, when this belief in the dictatorial nature of Putin’s government translates into the belief that if he wanted to, the Russian president could make all the “murky murders,” journalist arrests, and big business muscling disappear. The bleak reality is that pressuring Putin will not alleviate problems that have other causes besides Putin himself.

Russia may indeed be using strong rhetoric. But a sound foreign policy needs to mind its inherent weaknesses. A government that, in the words of Viktor Militarev, is suffering a “crisis of corporate management,” could use better medicine than constant reminders about a “democratic course.”

If such a crisis is indeed eminent, how can Washington help correct it? Ironically, by understanding that the best it can do is doing nothing at all. Russia expert Stephen Cohen wrote in The Nation this summer, “Do no harm! Do nothing to undermine [Russia's] fragile stability, nothing to dissuade the Kremlin from giving first priority to repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructures.” In his view, it is Washington’s own muscular stance in Russia’s “backyard” that has generated protectionist rhetoric in Moscow. By continuing to meddle, the West may just be provoking the kind of suspicious, isolationist attitude that it is decrying.

Whatever Putin’s shortcomings and the weakness of his administration, regime change is by far not the best option for further stability and domestic growth in Russia. Putin’s government has made progress, however small, in rebuilding Russia’s infrastructure in his seven-year tenure. It is hard to imagine how a more liberal and pro-Western successor, whose top priority will be a total overhaul of the government apparatus, could successfully continue this process. It is even harder to imagine how such an overhaul could ameliorate the immediate problems of corruption and lack of accountability. In this sense, foreign-sponsored NGOs aimed at strengthening various supposedly liberal opposition forces are at best a waste of time and resources, and at worst a potential catalyst for instability. Programs aimed at stimulating Russia’s internal development would do better by de-emphasizing political opposition and stimulating small business and grass-roots organization.

Finally, the West is understandably worried by the perceived isolationist tendencies of Russia. But once again, the current gas wars reveal the complexity of Russia’s energy-driven integration. The recent price hike in gas supplies to Belarus—and Europe’s reaction—point to a paradoxical, two-fold problem. On the one hand, already dependent on Russian energy, the West is dealing with a seemingly integrated world power, a major player that the West depends upon. But on the other hand, Russia’s relations with Belarus, and their impact, show just how incomplete the transfer from a Soviet power to a loose confederation really was. We can view Russia as a bully using its energy muscle to discipline a former satellite. Or we can look at the conflict as a last attempt to draw badly needed boundaries of sovereignty and thus establish Russia’s identity by redefining relations with its former holdings. In the latter case, whatever side is right, self-interested meddling by outside powers will only perpetuate Russia’s longstanding, oftentimes tragic, paradox: its constant struggle to be a major player in the world arena at the expense of domestic development and national identity.

FPIF contributor Anna Arutunyan is a freelance writer and an editor at the Moscow News.