Staunton, February 14 – Leaders of democratic countries seldom make radical changes in course because they are enmeshed in a web of relationships that makes that difficult if not impossible in the absence of some external threat. But dictators are different: they have fewer constraints and thus sometimes do the most unexpected things.
Thus, to give but one of a long line of examples, Hitler changed from a man who had made his career as an opponent of communist suddenly transformed himself into Stalin’s ally by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact only to betray his new “partner” two years later by reverting to type and invading the Soviet Union.
Or to take another, domestic example: Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin rose through the CPSU as completely loyal apparatchiks and used the authoritarian resources at their command, only to transform themselves incompletely to be sure and thereby changed the direction of their country toward a more open future.
That special feature of authoritarian regimes has spawned a cottage industry in Moscow and the West which hold out the possibility that Vladimir Putin could at some point radically change course, typically in the direction that those speculating on that possibility want, and that this possibility is something everyone needs to keep in mind.
Thus, it is sometimes suggested that if the West behaves in a way that Putin wants, the Kremlin leader will become again the reformer committed to a liberalization of the economic system they always believed he was. And consequently, the Kremlin undoubtedly welcomes such discussions as a means of keeping the West divided and off balance.
But however that may be, such discussions can be suggestive of where Putin and the Russian political system are and where they may be heading. And consequently, one presented by the editors of the Rusrand.ru portal between one analyst who thinks he could change course radically and one who says he can’t or won’t may be valuable.
At a recent Moscow seminar on “The Possibilities of a Perestroika of the Model of Russia Toward a post-Liberal Form in an Evolutionary Way under the Leadership of V.V. Putin,” Vardan Bagdasaryan and Stepan Sulakshin, two researchers at the Moscow Center for Scientific Political Thought and Ideology, faced off on this question.
In a nearly 6,000-word presentation, Bagdasaryan argued that Putin, like earlier Russian rulers and for the same reasons, has a chance to make a radical departure from where his current policies and move to a mobilization regime (usrand.ru/docconf/shans-na-obnovlenie-rossii-putinym--suschestvuet).
For him, the question is not whether Putin can do so but rather what might be “the catalyst” for what he calls “a Ceasarian transition to a post-liberal model.” He suggests there are in fact many things that could trigger him to act: “the threat of a color revolution” or “a frontal attack” by the West, two thing that would force him to act or lead to “the fall of the regime and the collapse of the country.”
Sulakshin, on the other hand, argued that there is a “minimal” chance that Putin will do so not only because of his own values but because of the web of relationships of which he is a part. Consequently, he predicts in his paper that Putin won’t change much regardless of the threats he faces (rusrand.ru/docconf/shans-na-obnovlenie-rossii-samim-putinym-minimalnyj).
Both of these analysts share a preference for a turn to a mobilization system, but their arguments may also apply to other course corrections Putin might select, including a return to a more liberal system. And thus their detailed listings of the resources he has and the restrictions he is operating under may be useful to those open to the possibility that Putin may change in some major way – or alternatively to those who are certain that he won’t.