The Foreign Service Journal, April 2007
who praise the current regime, believing that authoritari- anism is Russia’s only path to modernization —misses the point. Argument over whether Putin is a Jekyll or a Hyde, or whether the Yeltsin years were good and the Putin years bad, or vice versa, fails to address either the funda- mental challenges Russia faces or the capacity of the Russian elite to cope with them. But now these issues are perhaps clearer than ever. In the following, we examine the framework of the Russian political system, looking at its stability, what it can deliver in terms of domestic and foreign policy, and the prospects for future transformation. In particular, we seek insight into two major questions of relevance today: What will happen when the factors currently holding Russia together stop working? And, how far off is this moment of truth? Personified Power Those who argue that Putin made a sharp break with the Yeltsin era have a hard time proving it. To be sure, he has torn down some elements of his predecessor’s rule. But by doing so, he bolstered the principle of per- sonified power, a principle that Yeltsin established. Thus, Putin showed himself truly to be Yeltsin’s succes- sor: both leaders contributed to maintaining a system that survives by succeeding one set of arbitrary rules with another, each accompanied with a new rhetoric substituting for a nonexistent ideology, and each tied to the leader himself. By contrast with a system based on the rule of law, this system is uniquely limited and vul- nerable. Under Putin, personified power has assumed the form of a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime. The concentra- tion of power in the hands of a president has led many to conclude that the current regime is autocratic. But appearances are deceptive: in fact, the Russian president is increasingly dependent on his base, which is comprised of the “apparatchiki,” the so-called power structures (the military, law enforcement and security services), big busi- ness and liberal technocrats. These disparate groups have congealed into a bureau- cratic corporation , which tries not only to make the pres- ident its hostage but also presents its own interests as those of the Russian state. Contrary to one popular assumption, its membership is not mainly made up of “siloviki” (former officials of the intelligence and military agencies), who have failed to demonstrate the ability to govern, but rather the apparatchiki (federal and local) who have restored control over the state they lost in the 1990s. Ironically, liberal technocrats constitute a critical element of the corporation, injecting a spirit of dynamism and at the same time discrediting liberalism. In preparation for the approaching election cycle, the Russian political elite has devoted all of its resources to maintaining the status quo. It may succeed in this, as long as it manages to prevent a schism from developing within its ranks. Bickering inside the Kremlin, however, has already begun in earnest. Putin’s successor will most like- ly have to follow in his footsteps, consolidating the new rule by denouncing his predecessor and forcing today’s Kremlin team into early retirement. There is no reason to assume that Putin intends to remain in the Kremlin beyond the end of his second term (to do so would require a change in the Russian Constitution). Putin surely understands that were he to stay on, he would become a puppet of the new adminis- tration: the leader who dismantles the constitution under- mines the legitimacy of his presidency and thereby desta- bilizes the political system, based as it is on personal lead- ership. Still, it is unclear whether he will manage to guar- antee a smooth succession. Bureaucracy’s Victories over the Market The economic foundation of the current Russian sys- tem is bureaucratic capitalism, which has replaced Yeltsin’s oligarchic capitalism. Having gained a sense of self-confidence, the bureaucracy no longer requires inter- mediaries to run the economy. This does not necessarily imply nationalization or redemption of property, as hap- pened with the oil companies Yuganskneftegaz and Sibneft. The bureaucratic corporation has devised other ways to control assets, particularly by installing its repre- sentatives on the boards of private companies. The ruling elite will undoubtedly tighten its grip on the economy, although some private companies under Kremlin control F O C U S 26 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / A P R I L 2 0 0 7 Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she co-chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Project, dividing her time between Washington, D.C., and Moscow. Prior to joining Carnegie, she was deputy direc- tor of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Center of Political Studies in Moscow.
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