Russia’s “sultan” Putin
The next Russian Revolution started this month. It will be another two or three or even four decades before the Russian people take to the streets to overthrow their dictator â and the timing will depend more on the price of oil than on anything else â but as of Sept. 24, revolution rather than evolution became Russiaâs most likely path in the medium term.
Thatâs because President Dmitri A. Medvedevâs announcement last weekend that he would step aside next March to allow Vladimir V. Putin to return to the Kremlin was also an announcement that the ruling clique failed to institutionalize its grip over the country.
We have known since 1996 that Russia wasnât a democracy. We now know that Russia isnât a dictatorship controlled by one party, one priesthood, or one dynasty. It is a regime ruled by one man.
âThe party doesnât exist,â said one of Russiaâs leading independent economists. âThe politics is all about one person.â
“There is no such thing as Putinism without Putin,” Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national-security studies at the US Naval War College, wrote this week in The National Interest. “Putin must still remain personally involved and at the helm for his system to function.”
That new reality might seem to be a victory for Putin. But it is a flawed triumph. His resumption of absolute power is also an admission that he and his cronies have failed in the project they set themselves in 2008. And that failure leaves the future President Putin with an Achillesâ heel.
The project was to create a self-replicating institutional base for the regime Putin brought to power in 2000, when he took over from Boris N. Yeltsin and dismantled the fledgling democratic structures the first leader of independent Russia had either created or tolerated.
âIn 2008, Putinâs message was, âWe arenât like a Central Asian republic, we arenât going to build a personalistic regime, we will have institutions,ââ Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and one of the most astute students of Russian power, told me. âThis is all abolished now. The very idea of a governing party and party career, as you have in China, that didnât work.â
Russiaâs transformation into what political scientists call a sultanistic or neo-patrimonial regime is a break both with Russian history and with the global trend. The Kremlin has been home to plenty of murderous dictators. But the czars drew their legitimacy from their blood and their faith. The general secretaries owed their power to their party and their ideology. Putinâs rule is based solely on the man himself.
Russiaâs shift to sultanism is out of step with the rest of the world, too. The Arab Spring was a revolt against some of the worldâs most powerful neo-sultans; it is no accident that most of the remaining Middle Eastern dictatorships are ruled by dynastic monarchs, not strongmen. And among the worldâs great powers â a group to which Russia is desperate to belong â only the Kremlinâs ruler need say lâĂ©tat, câest moi. China is certainly authoritarian, but it is a one-party state of precisely the sort Putin has failed to build.
One characteristic of paternalistic regimes is that they rule through fear and humiliation â remember the refrains from the streets of Tunisia and Egypt about people protesting to regain their dignity. That is being lost in Russia. One analyst, who has always spoken to me freely before, asked not to be quoted. When I asked a Russian businessman who was traveling in Europe what his friends back home thought, he was shocked by my naĂŻvetĂ©: Kremlin politics, he explained, was no longer an issue it was safe to discuss on Russian telephones.
The sense of humiliation is even greater. âA lot of my friends are very disappointed that the private decision of two friends can determine the fate of their great and huge country,â one oligarch from the former Soviet Union told me.
Most humiliated of all was President Medvedev, who was required to announce his abdication from the Kremlin himself. âMedvedev is now the ultimate symbol of weakness,â Krastev said. âThe liberals now hate him more than they hate Putin.â
Donât, however, expect Western business to complain. When it comes to dealing with governments, especially foreign ones, chief executives love one-stop shopping, and thatâs one thing a personalistic dictatorship provides. As one European chief executive told me, âWe applaud this candidacy. Putin has been supporting industry in a way that is remarkable.â
Another thing Western chief executives like about dealing with dictators is presumed stability. Thatâs not entirely a myth â look at Ukraine to see how turbulent a post-Soviet state can be when it experiments with democracy â but it isnât totally true either.
Paternalistic regimes can be very strong, but they are also very brittle. They have two great vulnerabilities. The first is money. Fear and humiliation are important tools for a neo-patrimonial strongman, but he needs cash, too. A Russian economist I spoke to calculated that if the price of oil were to fall below $60 a barrel, and stay there, Putinâs reign could soon be imperiled.
The second is succession. The central problem with a regime built on one man â and a reason Putin tried to institutionalize Russian authoritarianism â is that it has no mechanism for transferring power.
âFor this type of regime, the only succession is that you clone yourself,â Krastev said. âIn 2008, Putin wanted to convince us that he, like Yeltsin, could retire to the dacha. Now, there is no dacha for Putin anymore. He must die in the Kremlin.â