The siloviki of 27 years ago “certainly understood that Mikhail Gorbachev, in the event of a successful introduction of martial law, would not refuse to run the country with the help of force methods: he simply wouldn’t have had any other choice,” Travin continues, especially given that his policies had led to the demonization of the bureaucracy he earlier had relied on.
If the coup had succeeded and Gorbachev had followed this line, the economist argues, the country would have been transformed from “a bureaucratic totalitarian regime into a personalist authoritarian one.” But Gorbachev had not become “a real autocrat even when he created for himself the post of USSR president.”
“The first years of his administration, Gorbachev ruled thanks to the authority won with the help of the demagogy of perestroika,” Travin says. “But by the beginning of the 1990s, this resource was completely used up. Beautiful words began to pall, and at the same time it became ever more difficult to live as a result of intensifying shortages.”
“Gorbachev didn’t get the mechanism of rule he wanted. He seriously weakened the bureaucracy but didn’t create a regime of personal power. He couldn’t run the economy the old way but hadn’t developed a new one. Chaos ensued … and it awakened in the siloviki a desire to run the country at least for a time by their methods.” The coup was the result.
The situation today is very different: “A strong Putin is not at all like a weak Gorbachev.”
“But there is one important aspect which makes the current era similar with the beginning of the 1990s. Putin like Gorbachev cannot rule using the very same resource which in his first years of power had secured him personal popularity. For Gorbachev, this was the idea of Perestroika; for Putin, it was the growth of real incomes.”
During the mass protests of 2011-2012, Travin says, many felt the regime would collapse because oil prices had. “But everything turned out differently. Putin did not destroy the bureaucratic structure in order to have reforms which the opposition expected from him,” a correct move on his part if what mattered most was his remaining in power.
“Both the democrats and the siloviki were insufficiently strong to destroy the bureaucracy on which Putin continued to rely. After this, the democrats turned out to be completely marginalized and since then have exerted practically no influence on the powers that be,” the economist continues.
“With the siloviki,” he says, “the situation now is significantly more complicated. There are three important reasons why their positions have been strengthened.” First, Putin has had to use force to generate patriotism. Second, the reaction of the West has been to blame him for all such force. And third, corruption in the bureaucracy has reached unprecedented level.
According to Travin, it is thus not surprising that Putin early in his last term “gave the siloviki carte blanche” to move against highly placed corruption figures, “including ministers, generals and governors” and that in turn gave them far greater freedom of action than they had had.
It is still not the case that “the siloviki have become stronger than the bureaucrats. The country all the same is run with the help of various types of manipulation of the masses and not with the aid of force and shootings. But if suddenly something in the bureaucratic machine stops working, the positions of [the two groups] could come into balance.”
“How would Putin behave in that situation? On whose side would he be? Some consider that he would remain on the side of the bureaucrats because he doesn’t want to become dependent on the siloviki. Others suppose that he would be on the side of the siloviki because they are to him close socially.”
According to Travin, both these answers are “incorrect,” as a glance back at the 1991 putsch shows. Gorbachev wanted to remain above the fray as does Putin now, but unlike Gorbachev, in the event of a challenge, Putin would use force and use it massively to put down any challenge.