Prof. Kotkin is a professor of history and the director of Russian and Eurasian Studies program at Princeton University. His books include Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization and Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. He is chair of the editorial board of Princeton University Press and a consultant to the Open Society Institute and other foundations active in Eurasia. He reviews business books for The New York Times on Sundays. His essays have also appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Financial Times, and The New Republic. This enote is based on a talk Prof. Kotkin gave on February, 15, 2007, in Philadelphia, cosponsored by FPRI and the Mid-Atlantic - Russia Business Council.
The answer to the question of today’s talk, “Russia: toward democracy or dictatorship?” is “neither.” Russia is not a democracy, and it is not a dictatorship. Russia, like most countries of the world, has a ramshackle authoritarian system with some democratic trappings (some of which are meaningful). Russia is not in transition to or from anything. Russia is what it is.
Here in the U.S., it seems much harder than it should be to get good information on and insight into Russia. For instance, while the U.S. is the world’s number-one country in the number of immigrants it receives each year, Russia is second. Perhaps you knew that, but most likely you did not. “Immigrant nation” is not a way we in the U.S. talk about or understand today’s Russia. Most of the immigrants to Russia come from former Soviet republics, like Ukraine, Armenia, or Tajikistan, though some also come from North Korea and China. Today more than 500,000 and perhaps up to 1 million Muslims are thought to live in Moscow! At the same time, more than a quarter million Russians live in London. These migratory patterns represent major shifts. They are tied to the huge story of the Russian economy, which is transregional and global, but which we often hear about through a political lens.
American reportage on Russia generally obsesses about the Kremlin and the leader, Vladimir Putin. Putin dominates U.S. coverage of Russia far more than he dominates Russia. In the bargain, American media rarely quote Russians other than so-called talking heads distant from the high politics being obsessively covered. On policy matters there are almost no “senior Kremlin officials” quoted either by name or anonymously in American dispatches. Similarly, there are almost no heads of major businesses quoted. Court cases or tax cases do not cite law enforcement or state officials of any rank. Often not even agency spokesmen are quoted in the reporting. To be sure, some foreign reporters working in English on Russia do dig up facts, quote many sources close to events, and illuminate issues beyond the preoccupations of the U.S. government and bilateral relations. And there is hope that the circumstance of a semi-competitive or even simulated presidential election campaign will induce some Russian insiders to grant a degree of access to foreign media.
Access does not guarantee insight—as we know from Washington reportage—but most reports on Russia continue to be virtually unsourced. If pressed about access challenges and a conspicuous lack of good sources, American reporters covering Russia might blame the Russians’ penchant for secrecy. They would have a point. The hyper-secretive Russian government is a marketing nightmare, guaranteeing the country as a whole a far worse reputation than it merits. In what follows—which is based upon firsthand observation and discussions with Russian officialdom—I present some broad-brush comments on three dimensions of understanding Russia: first, the phenomenon of so-called Kremlin Inc., the now fashionable notion that the Putin regime is like a big, single state corporation; second, the uncannily stable nature of today’s Russian society, something we hear far less about; and third, Russia’s new assertiveness, which has taken many people by surprise and which is sometimes perceived as a new threat.
“Kremlin Inc.” is something that anyone can readily understand. It signifies that a KGB-dominated Putin group has taken over Russia and controls the country politically and economically. It’s a wonderfully simple story, now perhaps the dominate view among U.S. commentators on Russia. But Kremlin Inc. is one of those pernicious half truths.
The Russian political system lacks functioning political parties or other institutionalized mechanisms of elite recruitment. Instead it has an extremely personalistic system. Russian leaders appoint to positions of authority those people they went to school with, those from their home town, those from the places where they used to work. Vladimir Putin came from St. Petersburg. Moreover, he was at the top levels in Moscow for only a short period before he became president. To assert operative control over central state institutions and state-owned corporations, he seeks to appoint people who are loyal to him (sometimes he gets lucky and get both competence and loyalty, but often it’s just loyalty). Such people naturally will come from his hometown and former places of work, which happened to be the Leningrad KGB and the St. Petersburg city government.
(Note: There are two main public contenders to succeed Putin as president in 2008. One, Sergei Ivanov, comes from the Leningrad KGB, while the other, Dimitrii Medvedev, comes from the St. Petersburg city government. Most insiders suspect there will be a last-minute stealth candidate, in keeping with how Putin himself emerged and how he operates; others suspect that any Putin step-aside in 2008 will be more apparent than real. Only one person knows—if he in fact knows—whom he will be put forward as his successor.)
The popular idea of a KGB takeover of the Russian political system makes a certain amount of sense. The Soviet KGB was a huge institution, with massive personnel, and so, inevitably, a lot of today’s movers and shakers used to work there. But if Putin had worked in the defense ministry, the defense ministry would be “taking over” Russia. If he had worked in the gas industry, those who have made their careers in gas would be “taking over” Russia. It’s wrong to assume that because Putin comes from the KGB, and because that’s where his loyalists come from, the whole system is moving in the direction of a security regime by design. There is an element of that. Many of Putin’s colleagues sometimes do share a certain mentality—distrust of the West—but even more significantly, they belong to competing factions.
And that’s the key point. Whereas “Kremlin Inc.” implies a team, united in a collective enterprise, most high Russian officials despise each other. They’re rivals, in charge of competing fiefdoms with overlapping jurisdictions, and they’re trying to destroy each other. Dictatorship 101 teaches that a dictator needs officials to distrust each other, so that they’ll tattle to him about each other. The ruler will say “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him, he won’t bother you anymore.” Sometimes the ruler will impose a temporary truce. Often, though, the ruler will instigate still more conflict, pitting already antagonistic interests against each other, so that they’ll run to him for protection and become dependent on him.
Putin’s regime falls far short of being a dictatorship—in the chaotic conditions of the dysfunctional Russian state and of Russia’s relatively open society—but Putin’s ruling strategy comes straight out of Dictatorship 101. To outsiders, the strategy looks like centralization of all power in a disciplined pyramid, but on the inside the strategy looks like making sure that the ruling “team,” far from being united, is at each other’s throats. Thus, “Kremlin Inc.” is a political system of surface stability but turmoil underneath. Its members compete incessantly, and in Russian politics, offense is the best defense, so they proactively go after each other’s property and people (in a so-called naezd) before waiting for rivals to go after them.
What keeps this divided, turbulent, unstable, misnamed Kremlin Inc. from spinning violently out of control is dependence on Putin. Remove that one piece and pandemonium breaks loose in full view, rather than remaining mostly hidden. But Putin has promised, many times, that he will not seek a third consecutive term as president, which the 1993 Constitution prohibits. Putin has made this frequent promise even though he could have kept quiet. He has done it inside and outside the country, in public and in private. Many talking head commentators speculate that Putin is going to create a crisis and then use the crisis to remain in power. In truth, he doesn’t need a crisis. He has something like an 80 percent approval rating—as elected officials go across the world, that’s mind-blowing this deep into a governing cycle. Putin can essentially do whatever he wants. He doesn’t need to violate the constitution. If he wants, the Duma will change the constitution in a heartbeat and he can have his third term, with broad public support. But he keeps saying publicly that he doesn’t want a third term.
Putin’s insistence that he is stepping down has been frightening Russian business, international business, and even many international politicians. These people are sincerely afraid that the president is actually going to step aside in March 2008. If he does, the factions of the supposed Kremlin Inc.—a bunch of scorpions in a bottle—will go at each other publicly. Some of them will refuse to be subordinated to a new person. Some will want to be the new person. Many insiders want Putin to remain, to avoid the uncertainty of a struggle to establish a new primus inter pares, or leading figure. To be sure, far from everyone hopes the president will stay, but Putin has gotten an enormous swath of Russia’s population to pray, literally, that he engineers a smooth “transition.” Because Russia’s political system is so fractious and dependent on a single person, however, anything can happen in March 2008. Anything except democracy and rule of law.
From the point of view of many Russian insiders, the issue is, how does Putin manage a transition in which he has exacerbated animosities as a method of rule but, when he removes himself, does not allow those animosities to get out of hand? Posing the question this way should not be taken as an argument for Putin to remain in power or against Russia holding a genuine election. This is simply an observation about the state of play: the regime is unstable because all authoritarian regimes are ultimately unstable, and because the president keeps insisting publicly that he will abide by the Constitution and step down, thereby exposing the tremendous instability that lies at the heart of his outwardly stable regime.
The part of Russia that is stable is the society. Russian society is enormously dynamic. According to professional studies by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, something like 20-25 percent of Russian society qualifies as solidly middle class. Other studies-similarly measuring everything from level of education, foreign language knowledge, travel and abroad to income, lifestyle and, most important, property ownership-confirm this general picture. But the Russian middle class is something we hear too little about (unlike the middle class in, say, China or India). Instead, we hear about “oligarchs.” The latter number in the dozens, while the middle class numbers in the dozens of millions.
Russia’s middle class is not limited to the capital, although it’s biggest there. You see it in all the regional centers that have a dynamic economy. You see it in western Siberia, in St. Petersburg and in the north around St. Petersburg, in pockets of central Russia, and in some border areas. That doesn’t mean that the society has no poverty, that there aren’t deep problems like an overall decline of the population at all ages -down to 142 million, and still shrinking, despite the immigration. But the country has a dynamic, stable society, and it owns property. We tend to assume that there cannot be property ownership without rule of law. But if that were true, Chinese society or Russian society would not exist. But they do exist. There is no rule of law. But there is widespread ownership of property. For all the deep social problems—from drug-resistant TB to persistent alcoholism—Russian society is simultaneously a source of dynamism and stability.
About half of the Russian middle class works for the state. They’re bureaucrats and functionaries, law enforcement officials and tax collectors, inspectors and education overseers. They work in the KGB successor, the FSB, and in the big state-owned gas, oil, automobile, or defense companies. There’s a gigantic private economy in Russia (Russia’s economy is more private than China’s). But even those who work in private companies usually work in very large corporations. A tiny fraction of the Russian middle class owns their own businesses, but by and large, Russia’s middle class is not independent, small- or medium-sized business owners. Whereas in the United States and Western Europe, 70 percent of employment is in small and medium-sized businesses, Russia doesn’t even approach 25 percent for such employment. Still, Russia has a stable, dynamic, growing, state and corporate middle class that has a tremendous stake in stability.
Putin deserves some credit for the current sense of and desire for continued social stability, and he gets such credit from middle class Russians and those aspiring to become so. Again, however, outsiders sometimes miss or misinterpret this point, because they are looking for democracy. American political science teaches that if a country gets a stable middle class, it is on the road to the rule of law and democracy. This is true except in all the cases where it’s not true, which is most of the world. The Russian middle class knows Europe firsthand from traveling there, and for the most part its members identify with the values and institutions of democratic Europe. But the Russian middle class is smart, and it knows that if it gets political, it could lose its property and status. Individuals respond to incentives very well (economists are not totally wrong), and for the most part Russia’s middle class is not ready to sacrifice its position to push for the rule of law and democracy; rather, it is interested in preserving its wealth, in privileged access for its children to educational institutions and to career paths. So there is no push in Russia for democracy either from the top or the middle, even though much of the middle identifies strongly with European values and institutions.
Consolidation of dictatorship is not happening either, and society is a factor in that as well. Russia has no ideology like communism to unify people around a strong dictator, the Russian state lacks the capacity to impose military-style discipline on itself, and Russia has a market economy that is extremely complex to subordinate in part because it’s globalized. Even though there is a strong current in Russian society appreciative of order, few people mistake order for dictatorship. In fact, in conversations there is quite a lot of criticism in Russia of Putin and of the country’s direction, especially from people who comprise the Russian state. Meanwhile, Russian society is transforming the country’s socioeconomic landscape with its hard work, entrepreneurialism, consumption patterns and tastes, demand for education, foreign travel, and networking both domestically and globally. Russia’s social transformation is a big story, hiding, once again, in plain view. It is enough to take in the commercial advertising throughout society and media, including on pro-Kremlin Russian television, to see that business interests are targeting something commentators are not: Russia’s middle class.
In the 1990s, NATO expansion should have been defended on the grounds that it would increase the strength and capacity of NATO. In the event, the expansion did no such thing. On the contrary, you could argue that expansion has weakened NATO because you have all these militaries that were brought into NATO that don’t meet NATO specifications and have little to contribute. One key argument against NATO expansion in the 1990s was “It will anger the Russians and make them really mad at us, and they’ll do some bad things. So placate the Russians and don’t expand NATO.” I found this argument to be wrongheaded. (I was against NATO expansion, but I was against it because I thought it was bad for NATO.) But that’s policy under the bridge, as they say. Still, today when people say “Now Russia is flexing its muscles, it’s again trying to be involved in all regions of the world, NATO shouldn’t have expanded,” my response is that had there been no NATO expansion, we would likely still have what we see now in Russia: a revived, assertive, resentful power.
This revived, assertive, resentful Russia is nothing to fear. Russia has state interests that are different from U.S. interests (or Japanese interests or Chinese interests). Russians are more assertive in pressing their perceived state interests, but are they effective in doing so? Have they persuaded Europe that they’re a partner in energy security by cutting off the gas to Ukraine, or are they using their energy muscle in a way that could be compared to stepping on a rake? When you step on a rake, you smack yourself in the forehead. That’s Russian foreign policy. They smack themselves in the forehead.
Energy supply looks like a point of tremendous leverage for Russia, except energy’s a market, which entails a kind of codependency relationship. Russian suppliers have to find customers, and those customers have to not find alternatives, either in somebody else’s hydrocarbons or alternative forms. Silly talk about a “gas OPEC”—Russia has refused to join the regular OPEC—is a diversion, usually failing to enumerate the various ways that a gas OPEC is an impossibility, and the ways that the idea, not dismissed by Putin, goes down well in Tehran. An even more fundamental point often missed is that Russia cannot be your old Soviet economy anymore. Russia can form as many big state companies as it wants, but if Russia’s state-owned companies fail to perform in market conditions, the market will eventually punish them. The old joke about the State Planning Commission, so-called Gosplan, was that if you put them in charge of the Sahara, there would be a shortage of sand. Well, Gazprom, the gas monopoly, is in charge of the gas in a country that has around 33 percent of world gas reserves, and Russia may be running out of gas. The problem with a market economy is that you actually have to run a company as a business, and if you do not, you will pay the price.
When the Russia government gets assertive, mostly rhetorically, there’s little cause to worry, or even to react. Sure, other countries need to try to understand what Russian state interests are, so that there can be productive state-to-state relations based on mutual interests. But this is no different from relations with China, India, or any major country that seeks a place in an international system that these major powers did not create but that cannot function without their inclusion. A new cold war does not happen simply because Russia is suddenly semi-assertive again. Russia’s military is a shambles. Russia’s territory is much reduced, it controls no empire or satellites, and it barely has a sphere of influence. It lacks meaningful alliances. Its current political-economic model does not appeal to developing countries. True, Russia’s GDP has been growing at a rapid pace for eight years, but this is a good thing. In the belated recognition that Russia is a petrostate, the degree of diversification of Russia’s economy (biotech, software, aerospace, military hardware, food processing) is often missed. That, not posturing, will be the basis of Russian power, or lack thereof.
The overall picture in Russia, therefore, is, first, a false stability in the regime but actual instability there. The 2008 problem (presidential elections) is one in which everyone sees Putin as a solution but he himself may actually upend their expectations. Second, Russia has a dynamic middle-class society that is stable, and mostly apolitical. The middle-class in Russia understands that for now being apolitical is a winning strategy, and so it is deeply apolitical, to the disappointment of human rights and democracy activists. Third, the world will have to get used to the newly assertive Russia. Russia is not what it was in the 1990s, when it was free-falling, in an ongoing post-Soviet collapse, but rather it is a strategic power in a very important location, with its own state interests, interests that are going to conflict with others’ interests sometimes. Still, there is no need to be alarmed. The problem with viewing Russia as a major threat is that the threat is mostly to itself, not to the outside world.
Russia is stepping on a rake in almost all foreign policy arenas. Russia is also remarkably friendless. The only true friend Russia has is U.S. foreign policy, which is enormously effective at increasing anti-Americanism. The anti-Americanism is there in the world already; U.S. foreign policy doesn’t create it. But the goal of American foreign policy should be to decrease anti-Americanism. Instead, Washington seems adept at increasing anti-Americanism. This is the basis of much of Russian diplomacy. Everywhere that anti-Americanism is increasing, Russia sees an opportunity for itself to push into the conversation and be involved in adjudicating global issues. So a policy of diminishing anti-Americanism is actually a policy of diminishing Russian influence in the world. Still, some considerable degree of Russian power—like Chinese or Indian or Japanese or German power—will continue to be felt.
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