The Sources of Russian Conduct

The Sources of Russian Conduct

Mini Teaser: Sixty years after Kennan, Russia still baffles. But Putin's managed pluralism has deep roots in Russian opinion.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The political personality of Russian power today is the product both of ideology and circumstances. George Kennan's observations, made nearly sixty years ago, are just as valid today when considering Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Too often, outside observers have first created their image of Russia, and then located the appropriate facts and personalities to support their construction. To get Russia right, we must seek to understand it as it understands itself, not as we might wish it to be.

During the 1990s, we underestimated Russia's vices in order to maintain the fiction that a post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin was firmly on the path to Western-style liberal democracy and free-market economics. As Russia moved further away from its Soviet past, the assumption ran, so its interests would converge with those of the United States. The desire to anoint Russia as a liberal ally of the West covered over a multitude of sins, most notably the rampant corruption that continues to devastate the Russian economy.

Today, we underestimate Russia's virtues to depict the country as a neo-Stalinist, authoritarian dictatorship bent on subverting freedoms at home and recreating its empire abroad. Russia is no longer seen as a partner to be engaged, but an emerging threat that needs to be contained. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post concludes that we are witnessing "the consolidation of KGB-style authoritarianism" in Russia, while Senator John McCain accuses President Putin of mounting a "creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism." Yet renewing the Cold War image of Russia as an evil empire precludes the development of a genuine partnership based on shared vital interests.

Both of these positions miss the numerous complexities of post-Soviet Russia. Contemporary Russia is a state that "completely mixes, functionally and territorially, important democratic and authoritarian characteristics."1 It can desire close and meaningful relations with the West, particularly the United States, yet strive to maintain its influence, especially in its immediate Eurasian neighborhood. So, a realistic evaluation of what Putin and his regime stand for is needed--as is an explanation of why the course that is being set for Russia enjoys such overwhelming domestic support.

Stolypin, Not Stalin

It is difficult to summarize the set of ideological concepts that guide Putin and his team--"Putinism" remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, from the inception of his administration, he and his team have sought

"to replace the disorder of the Yeltsin period with order and stability. A primary component of Putin's policy of strengthening vertical power in Russia is the reeling in of the power of the oligarchs and local bosses."2

This platform has won Putin a great deal of support, especially among the emerging small business community, which looks to a strong central government for security against both the oligarchs and power-hungry local politicians.

And it is clear that Putin has no desire to create a democracy for democracy's sake, especially if the result is an economically weak, politically impotent entity. Russians have no interest in becoming another "El Salvador and Jamaica . . . two excellent examples of relatively poor but inclusive societies with above-average social welfare"3 but scant influence in the world.

Yet the rejuvenated Russian state the Putin team has in mind has more in common with the late-tsarist era conservative reformer Peter Stolypin (prime minister, 1906â€"11) than with Joseph Stalin. After the chaos unleashed by the 1905 Revolution, Stolypin emphasized political stability with an eye to promoting rapid economic growth. A dynamic market economy and modernized, efficient institutions would enable the Russian state to exercise power in the world, he argued, especially after the defeat of the Russo-Japanese war.

Stolypin, who as a regional governor freely employed harsh tactics to crush revolutionary unrest, nonetheless recognized that the command methods of the autocracy were not capable of generating the economic and social development Russia needed to advance. Some degree of political and economic pluralism was necessary and needed to be accommodated. Stolypin's most famous reform plan was to break up the traditional Russian peasant commune in favor of individually-owned farms, in an attempt to create a new middle class supportive of his policies. His manipulation of electoral laws kept many radical democratic elements out of the Third and Fourth Dumas but also transformed the fledgling legislature from a pulpit for revolutionary orators into a working parliament. Many Russians today believe that if Stolypin's reforms had not been interrupted by his assassination and the onset of World War I, he would have transformed the Russian Empire into a modern state with social and political institutions comparable to those found in Western societies.

It is not accidental that Stolypin's motto, "You want great upheavals, but we want a Great Russia", has been resurrected as a slogan of the United Russia party. I suspect that another Stolypin truism, "First establish order, then start the reforms" would resonate very strongly with the current Kremlin.

Managed Pluralism

Like Stolypin, Putin wants a regime that, while ensuring political stability, will promote economic growth. Yet the Putin team grapples with a paradox: while recognizing the immense value created by a pluralistic, competitive society, it fears that unrestrained pluralism--especially in the absence of strong, mediating institutions--will be destructive for Russia. In December 1999, Putin declared that "Russia has had more than its fair share of political and socioeconomic convulsions."

His administration believes that Russia can best avoid further destructive convulsions by a system "where state and public principles are not antagonists."4 Franz Klintsevich, deputy chair of United Russia's fraction in the Duma, concluded recently: "We seek a broad alliance between the authorities and society to achieve a goal that everyone understands, which is to ensure decent living standards in Russia and make people again be proud about their Motherland."5

Putinism or neo-Stolypinism does not subscribe to the notion that Kennan identified as an institutional and psychological foundation of the Stalinist system, that "no opposition . . . can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever." And the Russian government does not have absolute freedom to set the agenda. The Putin Administration must contend with "domestic interest groups and constituencies" in crafting policies.6

What emerges is what I have termed "managed pluralism." In such a system, there is some room for competition and choice but the central authority consciously regulates the available social, political and economic options by design, with an eye to preserving stability or consensus.7 In Russia, most of the organizations of civil society--from media outlets to religious organizations--rely on either the state directly for funding or private corporations that are sensitive to the regime's concerns. (This prompted the noted Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner in January 2002 to observe, "Do not think about your independence if you are not economically solvent.")

In the political realm, there are elections, political alternatives and the opportunity to replace leaders. However, the state plays a role in controlling the number of groups allowed access to the public square, as well as delineating the limits of debate and deviation from the social norm. The system, therefore, is democratic--but only to a point. The Kremlin has not been shy to use "administrative resources" to "place impediments in the path of opposition candidates"8--as the December 2003 parliamentary and the March 2004 presidential elections made clear. Yet, when evaluating the parliamentary poll, it is important to recall that more than half of the members of the Duma were replaced. Opinion polls confirm that the election results, however unwelcome in the West, reflect popular preferences.9

In economic terms, managed pluralism favors state-directed capitalism, similar to public-private partnerships found in contemporary Japan, South Korea or Singapore. The Putin Administration has on many occasions made it clear that there will be "no revision of privatization", no re-nationalization of assets.10 They recognize that when private owners (including foreign investors) exercise managerial control over assets and are able to reap the profits, the economy prospers. But Putin's associates advance the argument that the government should have a consultative role in the development of the Russian economy. In their mind, the right to own property--economic assets, natural resources and so on--is balanced by the duty of the business community to work with the state to promote the common good. "Take care of the welfare of other people, the nation and the country when seeking personal welfare", sums up their attitude.11

Under managed pluralism, actors have the ability to pursue their interests in Putin's Russia--within the limits that have been delineated by the Kremlin. And the regime has formidable tools at its disposal to try and ensure that social actors remain within bounds. Steps taken by the Kremlin over the last few years--reining in oligarch-controlled media outlets, creating no-go zones between business and politics,12 tinkering with electoral procedures--do not represent regression from an idyllic liberal democracy, but consolidation of the managed pluralist system--especially if we recognize that the goal of the Putin Administration is not to establish liberal democracy at all costs but rather to continue with orderly reform.

The Collapsed Superpower

The desire to promote stable reform is an outgrowth of the Putin team's recognition that Russia is a collapsed superpower and a declining great power. Unlike Boris Yeltsin, who still clung to the illusion that post-Soviet Russia was a near equal to the United States on the world stage, the current regime recognizes that Russia can neither compete with the United States nor serve as co-guarantor of any new world order. Its greatest fear is that a de-industrializing and de-populating Russia will be transformed into a resource-and-raw-materials appendage to the more developed world, leading to the complete erosion of any Russian influence in the world, even in their immediate Eurasian neighborhood, and possibly even loss of control over parts of Russia itself. They reluctantly agree with Kennan's analysis that "Russia, as opposed to the Western world in general, is still by far the weaker party . . . and that [Russian] society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential."

Essay Types: Essay