This has been a bad year for dictators, starting with the Arab Spring and ending now with the Russian Winter. If you are one of the autocrats who survived the annus horribilis of 2011, here are three lessons, drawn from some smart Russians and Russia-watchers, of what the unexpected Slavic protests this month could mean.
The first is that authoritarian regimes don’t run on autopilot. To survive, particularly in the age of the Internet, jet travel and global capital flows, dictatorships need to be savvy and effective. We often attribute the success of democratic revolutions to their brave leaders or the spirit of the times, but, as Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues, “authoritarian incompetence” can be an equally powerful driver.
That is certainly the case in Russia, where one reason United Russia, the party of power led by Vladimir V. Putin, did so poorly in elections this month is the simple fact that the regime made a lot of political mistakes.
“The ineffectiveness and stupid actions of the authorities have accelerated the process,” Grigory Chkhartishvili, the best-selling Moscow author who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin, explained in an e-mail. He recalled asking Yegor Gaidar, the late architect of Russian economic changes, “when does he expect society to awaken. Around 2015, he answered, if they, meaning Putin and his entourage, do not make too many mistakes. Well, they have made too many mistakes.”
Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, made a similar point this week. Gelman argued that the Kremlin’s wobble in December was an own-goal, or, as he put it, “a blow delivered with its own hands.”