The Degradation of Putin’s Dictatorship

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In this column for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, Georgy Satarov, a former Yeltsin aid and specialist in political corruption, discusses the current regression of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime and provides advice – and hope – for opposition protesters.

The Degradation of Putin’s Dictatorship
By Georgy Satarov
June 19, 2012
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

I have long been lambasted by my political science textbook-wielding colleagues for calling the Putin regime a dictatorship. And I’ve fought them off: there are different kinds of dictatorships; they turn up in different historical periods in different ways; dictatorships in the information age are not what they were in the previous century. That is why I can confirm that what we’re seeing right now is not the establishment of a dictatorship, but its degradation. Let me explain: the degradation of social order is always a clear historical move to an old, primitive form. The degradation of our dictatorship is a transition from a 21st century dictatorship to a dictatorship from a century ago. That is exactly what we’re seeing right now. Pay attention: the same thing happens with a person in a state of stress or fear. His behavior begins to be governed not by subtle mechanisms of societal control, but by ancient animalistic instincts. This is exactly what our government is demonstrating, by moving from episodic imitation of commitment to the law to complete, unlawful tyranny – whether it’s by passing laws or carrying out indiscriminate searches and arrests – when they’re seized by panic. Let me remind you, by the way, that this didn’t just begin now. The first mass arrests were in 2006 – right before the first Other Russia coalition conference.

It’s clear enough that the attempts to frighten hundreds of thousands of people with fines and repression have had the opposite effect. We saw this for certain on June 12. But remember that this whole disgrace is happening prior to the routine pokazukha that we call the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. My colleagues and even friends will be going there. They are going to participate in the same collective lie in the same halls as Putin and Medvedev. They will be smeared like paint all over the canvas of a picture of a beautiful, liberal Russian government. And then I’ll have to become even more discerning with whom I choose to shake hands.

Western politicians and businessmen will also be at the forum. Politicians I can still understand. They need to endear themselves to their constituencies and put gas in their tanks, and therefore they are forced to make agreements with an illegitimate, criminal regime. But how are we to understand the businessmen?! The political risks of investing in Russia are steadily approaching the absolute maximum possible. But yes, that’s their problem. And we have to deal with our own.

What can we expect next? We have to proceed off of the steadily growing inadequacy of the government. We also must assume that there are people in the government who are also aware of this inadequacy and its negative consequences. This, most likely, is going to increase discontent in the administrative elite with the (relatively) higher political leaders. The traditional behavior of the elites in this kind of situation is to split and for one to try and sacrifice the other, giving it up to the mercy of the opposition and outraged public opinion in an attempt to save itself. And here’s a funny thing: at a certain point it becomes a race for whoever can unite with the opposition faster and betray the rest, throwing them to the dogs. To speak concretely: either the Chekist “Putinyata” blame the liberal “Chubaisyata” for everything, beating themselves in the chest and proclaiming their professional patriotism, or the “Chubaisyata” sacrifice the Chekists and join up with the hated military.

So here’s what’s unpleasant: there is no guarantee that such a scenario ends gracefully with the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in the interest of the citizens of Russia. But there are more uncertainties, fraught with catastrophic consequences including the collapse of the country, in the inertial scenario of the non-stop, uncontrolled collapse of the regime. An understanding of this dramatic fork in the road, which is unavoidable since Putin’s dictatorship is deteriorating, would be helpful for the collective protest leadership. That’s to the extent, of course, that such an understanding can serve as a reason for adequate actions. And it’s clear what those actions would be: the development of legitimate protests (the opposition has no right to compete with the government in levels of inadequacy), the split of the ruling elite, and the search for possible partners. The growth of the scale of the protest is not only a means of pressuring the government to split up, but also the single means of defense from a government prepared to violate any law to save itself.

One last thing. I am not ruling out that the government hopes to set up a zugzwang for the protests. Repression will either frighte the people and the protests will come to naught, or, conversely, it will infuriate and provoke the protesters to act outside the boundaries of the law. The latter could lead to the consolidation of the elite and provide an excuse for expanded repression. This means that the protest needs to be legitimately expanded and supported. It’s difficult, but it’s the only way.

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