Vienna, September 13 – Neither a turn to repression nor authoritarian liberalization will lead to the modernization of Russia, according to a St. Petersburg scholar, but the current powers that be are not prepared to face up to it because democracy would threaten their positions and they will be able to retain power until a genuine opposition movement emerges.
In a comment on the Slon.ru business portal, Grigory Golosov, a professor at St. Petersburg European University, argues that “for Russia’s rulers, democracy would be a systemic risk of such size that its positive effects lose any importance” and that “on their own initiative they will not take that risk” (slon.ru/blogs/ggolosov/post/460957/).
“Authoritarian liberalization,” he says, “is a path with a dead end.” That is because, as many political scientists have documented, “’soft’ dictatorships are even more corrupt and even less effective than harsh ones,” and consequently, placing one’s hopes in softening the dictatorship almost certainly will only make things worse.
Golosov continues by observing that the path to democratization is not easy. “Personal dictatorships are not very stable: each of them encounters the problem of succession.” But if that can be overcome, then there is no reason to think that “something will change in the foreseeable future.”
That does not mean that “democratization in Russia is impossible” -- only that “it is impossible under current conditions.” Many thought that the decline in the price of oil would lead to democratization by creating a crisis in the regime, but as it turned out, “the inter-relationship of economics and politics is not [so] direct.”
There are essentially two ways to make government administration more effective, both of which “were tried in the USSR not long before its collapse,” but neither of which is readily available to Russian leaders now except at the risk of potentially serious consequences for themselves and the system.
The first of these, of course, is tightening the screws and imposing administrative discipline, as Yuri Andropov tried to do. Dong the same thing now “would be more complicated because for the Russian ruling class, corruption is the natural means of maintaining itself.”And consequently, there are few people ready to adopt this approach.
The second path is liberalization. In the USSR, Gorbachev tried that, Golosov says. And the current “logic of authoritarian liberalization” follows a similar line. “In contemporary Russia this would mean that the rules of the game” would change, with the worst forms of corruption punished in order to allow the lesser forms to continue.
“Such a strategy,” Golosov says, “presupposes a certain increase in the role of the media and also public organizations and imitation political parties.” But as now, the real decisions as to what would be attacked and what ignored would remain the preserve of officials at various levels of the power vertical.
Such an approach won’t work very well because it deprives those on top of one set of levers of control without creating others and thus opens the way to the decay of the system much as was the case under Gorbachev. And thus it would suffer the fate of “soft” dictatorships elsewhere, with bureaucratic “arbitrariness” and corruption growing and little progress achieved.
Thus, neither turning the screws nor authoritarian liberalization “will produce a more effective state administration in Russia.” But that reality does not mean that the current leadership will “throw up its hands and say it is time ‘well now it is time to take up democratization again.’”
Instead, it may continue doing what it is doing now for “a very long” time. “This is a question of priorities,” Golosov says. “Preserving power is simply more important because they know that if their power will be lost, it will be lost by all of them, immediately and for many it will involve extremely unpleasant consequences.”
A new Gorbachev is in principle possible of course, but only if forces emerged that compelled him to act as a liberalizer. Indeed, Golosov concludes, “democratization without a strong democratic opposition is nonsense, a contradiction in terms. And the absence of such an opposition is one of the decisive factors which has blocked the political development” of Russia.