Vienna, December 17 – Putinism represents neither a revival of the Soviet system nor the establishment of a traditional authoritarian regime, according to one of Moscow’s leading sociologists. Instead, it represents a regime of a new type, one in which the force structures are now in a position to pursue their various, often competitive “clan” interests.
But because this regime is degrading the state and society by blocking “the institutional differentiation and separation of ‘society from the state’” launched in the 1990s, Levada Center director Lev Gudkov says, it is “unstable” and unlikely to be able either to maintain itself or arrange “a peaceful transfer of power” (www.levada.ru/press/2009121600.html).
Gudkov offered this definition of “Putinism” a week ago at a Moscow conference on “Russian Alternatives,” but his speech was posted on his research center’s website only yesterday. In it, he provides one of the most detailed discussions yet of how Putin’s approach differs from the regimes with which it is normally compared.
Russia’s “current crisis,” he argues, shows that “the political system laid out in Russian during the first decade of this century is not simply conservative” but rather restrains or even suppresses the development of other sub-systems of society, including economics, science, education, civil society, and the public sphere of life.”
“Having begun with the subordination of the media and then the judicial system and the parliament,” Gudkov continues, “the Putin regime paralyzed the processes of the differentiation of the institutional system and the separation of “society from the state” which were initiated by the reforms of the 1990s,” all things that have led to “social and cultural degradation.”
And “following the logic of the self-preservation of power, the current regime on its own cannot stop in this direction. The extent of the use of force with each year will grow, and the size of the falsification of elections or new judicial cases will [only] increase,” however much many people believe otherwise.
At present, Gudkov says, there are two different views about what is going on: “the country is returning to the USSR/the present regime is a form of fascism” and “the present regime is the personal authoritarian power of Putin himself.” Both the former and the latter, the Moscow analyst says, are in his view “incorrect.”
It is certainly true that the current “regime is constructed from ‘the remnants’ and ‘materials’ of the old system, but the composition of the institutions and, what is most important, their functions have become different.” Indeed, Gudkov says, one can speak about a new “technology of power” and a new “system of legitimation of the state.”
To make his point, Gudkov first contrasts Putinism with Soviet totalitarianism and then with more traditional authoritarian models before offering his own description of the regime that has emerged under Putin and that is usually referred to by his name, even though as Gudkov insists he is not really its author.
First of all, Gudkov says, Putinism does not have “the former monopoly of a party state” with “ideological control penetrating all social life.” Putin, he continues, is “not ‘a fuehrer,’ not ‘a demagogue,’ or tribune, who has won the trust of the masses in a situation of deep crisis.” Rather “by his mentality,” Putin is “a bureaucrat ‘from the organs.”
What popularity he has reflects both the work of regime propagandists, “the illusion of the masses that his leadership of the country allows the preservation of the current level of life,” and the marginalization or removal of the political scene of all competitors, thus promoting the idea that there is “no alternative” to him.
Second, Putinism is not interested in or able to promote through “a mobilizing ideology” the “construction or ‘a new world’ or the formation of ‘a new man.’ Third, again in contrast to the Soviet system, Putin’s foreign policy is not directed at forming “a second ‘socialist camp’” but at most “the creation of a cordon sanitaire” against the West.
Fourth, his regime does not feature the totalitarian competition of “terror, mass repressions and total propaganda.” Instead, it works to control the media “in proportion to the size of its audience – harsh for television, weak for print outlets, and largely still absent in the Internet.”
Fifth, Gudkov says, “there is no centralized, plan-distribution economy.” Sixth, the regime does not seek to close off society entirely from the world. Seventh, there is no system of “cadres reserves,” although “the cadres of the special services in part” play the role of the former nomenklatura.
And eighth, far more than its Soviet predecessor, the Putin-era elite is far more “opportunistic” and would be quite prepared “to sell out the current leadership, as soon as the regime begins to shake,” thus making the collapse of the current regime far more likely and the probable reaction of the powers that be to any “shaking” far more spasmatic.
For all these reasons, and again in contrast to the Soviet system, the Putin regime “recognizes the need for modernization but fears it because any transformation will be accompanied by a real risk to lose” all of the various powers and property “which it has at the present time.”
But if Putinism is very different from the Sovietism of the past, Gudkov argues, it is also very different from authoritarianism -- although the comparison is perhaps more apt because “the typology of authoritarianism is more diverse.” At the very least, it has “little in common with traditional authoritarianism … and with forms of authoritarian transformation regimes.”
Nonetheless, Gudkov points to four importance similarities between Putinism and other authoritarian systems. First, like them, it has “a quasi-paternalistic character,” reduces or degrades the public political sphere, and seeks to transform the government into “a technical apparatus for fulfilling ‘the will of the autocrat.’
Second, like other authoritarians, Putinism seeks to “strengthen ‘traditionalism,’ conservative interests and anti-modern orientations.” Third, because loyalty is more important than competence for both, Putinism has lowered the quality of administrative officials at all levels.
And fourth, Putinism promotes “the rapid growth of corruption, which has seized all spheres of the government structure,” a reflection of “the primitive (‘by hand’ character) of administration and the ineffectiveness of the state” and a feature that leads to even more “arbitrariness” by officials and alienation of the population.
At the same time, Gudkov insists, the contrasts with traditional authoritarian regimes are striking. “The ‘personalism’ of the regime is external. ‘Putin’ is not the creator of the regime but a pseudonym or nominal expression for the existing arrangement of forces in a narrow circle of people who have worked out and taken all important cadres and economic decisions.”
“To a great degree,” Putin “depends more on this circle of people from the special services who control the key branches of the economy or the most important institutions than ‘they’ do on him. He does not determine the composition of this circle; in the best case, he is the arbiter of competing groups within it.”
Moreover, Putinism’s “personalism reflects the amorphousness or archaic quality of the Russian institutional system. Precisely this lack of differentiation is what people are referring to when they mistakenly speak about personal power [or] the concentration of power ‘in one set of hands.’”
The Putinist regime, the Moscow sociologist argues, has neither the resources nor the interest in promoting “’genuine authoritarianism’.” Consequently, it promotes “imitative traditionalism” with “modernizing rhetoric,” even though it does not include within itself a variety of traditional elements like the Orthodox Church.
And yet another way in which Putinism differs from “’genuine’ authoritarianism” is that is needs “elections as a plebiscite-type sanction of its legitimation.” “Electoral ‘democracy’ [under Putin] replaces the democratic system” and degrades those social and political institutions that could express the views of other elites and the population.”
The distinguishing feature of the Putin regime is that “the political police are not so much an instrument for the powers that be as in fact the powers that be themselves,” one part of the bureaucracy which, “lacking counterweights and control works only for itself” and increasingly ignores anything but the specific interests of its component parts.
There is a real struggle among these groups, but it largely takes place behind closed doors, Gudkov says, with the public excluded. “From this arises that alienation from politics, that mass apathy which is a reaction to the recognition of the very fact that ‘there is nothing to be done’” given the absence of influence on “organized power.”
In his speech, Gudkov explores many of the consequences of this closed nature of power, but one on which he lays particular stress is the “latent decentralization” of power that this system involved, where various groups within the siloviki compete among themselves for personal profit without much or any regard for the interests of the country or the state.
And he concludes his remarks with the following frightening definition, which merits quotation in full: “’Putinism,’” Gudkov says, “is a system of decentralized use of the institutional resources of force retained by the force structures from the totalitarian regime but now made use of by the holders of power for securing their private, clan and group interests.”