Staunton, October 2 – Dmitry Travin argued in his 2016 book, Will the Putin System Survive until 2042? That “elections in authoritarian regimes can be won with the help of falsifications. But ‘to rely on them alone’ is just as uncomfortable for rulers as to rely on ‘bayonets.’”
Putin understood that, the professor at St. Petersburg’s European University argues in an interview with Znak journalist Aleksandr Zadorozhny, and consequently the Kremlin leader “tried as long as possible to preserve electoral authoritarianism” (znak.com/2020-10-02/ekonomist_dmitriy_travin_grozyat_li_putinu_revolyuciya_i_perevorot).
Putin did so “because if his election takes place more or less honestly, with moderate and bearable falsifications, a coup against him is practically impossible. But if everyone, the people, the elites, and in particular the siloviki understand that falsifications are excessive and the president in fact has lost the elections, then everything in this situation depends on the siloviki.”
What that can lead to is now on public view in Belarus where Alyaksandr Lukashenka lost the elections, everyone knows that, and he remains in office only because of his own siloviki and support from the Kremlin. If something similar happened in Russia, Putin would have no one to turn to.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that Putin is rapidly losing popularity but has done little to promote the formation of a legal state with representative institutions. As a result, Russians feel they have no choice but to go into the streets if they are sufficiently angry about the situation they find themselves in.
Drawing on the ideas of Max Weber, Travin says that “the charisma of Putin is exhausting itself, but Putin has not offered a legitimation of power based on law.” That creates “a colossal danger. The Kremlin can distance itself from that either by a coup, in which in lace of Putin a new charismatic leader will appear or the siloviki can use force to such a point that the people will be afraid to raise their heads in protest.”
“But if neither of these strategies work, the St. Petersburg scholar continues, “the danger of revolution arises,” including one that could be extremely bloody. The force structures can keep a ruler in office as they are doing in Belarus, but that leader is going to be tied hands and feet by them if they do.
The Putin regime may thus continue for the foreseeable future, but it will not be the same regime that it was when the Kremlin leader could rely on the legitimation elections can provide. He simply won’t have that resource to use in any conflict with the leaders of the force structures if they want something different.
“If the country can get by without a revolution, this will be much better than if a revolution occurs,” Travin argues. But that doesn’t mean that the road ahead for Russia is going to be smooth or have only positive aspects. Avoiding a revolution is one thing; avoiding decay into chaos held in check by force alone is something else altogether.
And in this situation, ethnic, regional, class and even religious conflicts are likely to emerge as people, whose conditions are deteriorating, seek to find someone to blame. That can tear apart the country and its institutions, including those which are supposed to defend the state. The army, because of its draft base, could be the first of these to be immobilized.
Putin may nonetheless be able to navigate his way through conflicts with the siloviki and remain in power for life. But he faces another challenge that will take all of his skill to counter: “Today, people are gradually recognizing that the authoritarian regime of Putin is interfering with their lives and that monopolies and corruption are destroying the economy.”
“Real incomes are falling,” and those who remember how Putin rescued the country from the 1990s are passing from the scene and being replaced by those who don’t have such memories, Travin continues. They are likely to come to the conclusion that “authoritarianism is ineffective while democracy works.”
“Of course, among these new generations, there will be people of various kinds. Young guys from the backwoods who are called to serve in the Russian Guard will be the last to conclude that they need democracy because they are going to be paid to suppress democratic protests.
But they will be a minority, the scholar argues. Most young people will draw conclusions on the basis of their falling incomes. “The countries of Central and Eastern Europe – the Poles, the Czechs, and the Balts – passed through this mental revolution in the 1980s,” Travin says. “They weren’t born with a democratic mentality, not to speak of the 50 years of communism.”
“However, gradually, ideas changed; and this is one of the reasons why in the course of the ‘velvet’ revolutions of 1989 there turned out to be almost no one who wanted to defend the socialist economy and the authoritarian political system,” Travin says. “Societies called for the market and for democracy.”
Russians may very well demand the same thing in the future.