Just what sort of political system has Vladimir Putin constructed in Russia? The Kremlin likes to speak of something called "managed democracy"; many observers prefer to call it "authoritarian." A few brave souls have even suggested that fascism might be an appropriate designation.
The correct term matters. First of all, it's important to call things by their real names and not engage in unnecessary obfuscation. Second, calling systems by their real names enables us to draw policy-relevant conclusions. If Russia really is democratic, then the current deterioration of Russia's relations with the West is likely to pass, as common values and common perspectives assert themselves over time. If, alternatively, Russia really is authoritarian-or even fascist-then the world may want to prepare for a further worsening of relations with an increasingly truculent Russia. Third, knowing just what Russia is now is especially important in light of Putin's imminent departure from the Russian presidency. If he's actually constructed a coherent political system, then that system will likely survive his withdrawal into the shadowy parts of the corridors of power. If, on the other hand, that system is only transitional, then Putin's leave-taking may provoke a crisis and, conceivably, a return to greater democracy.
One last introductory point. It's a mistake to think that calling Russia fascist necessarily means pursuing a policy of confrontation. There is no reason whatsoever why one cannot engage a fascist Russia; indeed, one could argue that engagement might be imperative precisely because Russia is fascist. It's no less a mistake to believe that calling Russia democratic necessarily means pursuing a policy of engagement. It's obvious that democratic states can be aggressive and act contrary to one's interests. And, although it may be true that, in the final analysis, "democracies do not fight", it is no less true that, in the lengthy run-up to that famed final analysis, they do not necessarily cooperate.
What Is Fascism?
Fascism is often used as an epithet, especially by the left, but it actually is a perfectly respectable social science term that refers to a particular type of political system. Everyone can agree that fascist states are authoritarian-that is, they lack the fundamental attributes of both democracy and totalitarianism. Unlike democracies, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, political contestation, and elections. The key word here is meaningful: in fascist systems, as in all authoritarian systems, parliaments are rubber-stamp institutions, judiciaries do what the leader tells them, opposition parties are marginal, and electoral outcomes are preordained. Unlike totalitarian states, fascist states do not penetrate into every aspect of a country's political, economic, social, and cultural life; fascist states do not propound all-embracing ideologies that purport to answer all of life's questions. Instead, like all authoritarian states, fascist states attempt only to influence and control these dimensions of life and they prefer to espouse limited worldviews.
Like authoritarian states, fascist states are highly centralized and hierarchical, they give pride of place within the authority structure to soldiers and policemen, usually secret policemen, and they always have a supreme leader. Indeed, there can be no fascist state without a supreme leader. Like authoritarian states, fascist states limit freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Like authoritarian states, fascist states also reject socialism and embrace capitalism-which means that they tacitly acknowledge private property and the autonomy of capitalists. And like authoritarian states, fascist states generally espouse some form of hypernationalism glorifying their nation and its fabulous past, present and future. But fascist states also go further than authoritarian states in fetishizing the state and its glory and power.