Staunton, December 27 – Many who are currently talking about the transformation of the Putin regime in the wake of the constitutional reforms that will allow him to remain in office for life ignore the fact that his regime has already passed through three stages and is now ending a fourth which may prove to be its final one, Dmitry Travin says.
The European University in St. Petersburg scholar suggests that considering these stages provides a certain clarity about the future and also shows that many of the changes were not so much the result of the personal choices of Vladimir Putin as of shifts in the objective circumstances his regime and his country have found themselves in (republic.ru/posts/99092).
Travin points out that the four stages correspond roughly to the four terms Putin has been elected president. In the first, no one talked about stability but about reform and change because Russians wanted to escape from the 1990s. And despite criticism of Moscow’s policies in Chechnya, there was “practically no confrontation with the West.”
The Kremlin did not need to use force against its opponents often, again except in the North Caucasus. The life of the population improved thanks to oil revenue, devaluation and reforms. The population was satisfied, and the small number of intellectuals who criticized Putin’s policies were allowed to do so with few restrictions.
And if anything, “the elites were even more satisfied than the broad popular masses,” Travin continues. “Corruption became the most important means of stimulating the work of bureaucrats and the formation of their personal loyalty to the Putin regime.” For that reason, there was almost no fight against this plague.
In Putin’s second term, “the picture began to be changed although not so much because of Putin’s desire as because of the impact of objective circumstances.” Once it became clear that the legitimacy of the regime was based on Putin’s charisma, the need for reforms ended and they stopped.
Indeed, it became obvious that while reforms might benefit the population and future benefits, they could destabilize the situation and become a problem for the incumbent. At the same time, because efforts to cooperate with the West had not brought the returns the Kremlin hoped for, Moscow took a tougher line.
In his 2008 Munich speech, Putin tried to show that the West would benefit more from having Russia as a friend than as a competitor but that if the West didn’t make that choice, Russia was prepared to go its own way even if that brought it into conflict with other countries, Travin argues.
During this term, “everything remained unchanged in domestic policy,” even as changes in foreign policy meant that doves were replaced by hawks in key foreign policy and security positions.
In his third term, earnings from oil and gas fell, Russian incomes followed, and the country headed into a prolonged slump. The protests of 2011-2012 showed that Putin no longer could count on charisma and needed to begin to manipulate public opinion and elections in a more thoroughgoing way. The Crimean Anschluss slowed but did not stop this trend.
At the same time, corruption was allowed to explode in order to buy the loyalty of elites. But “the danger arose” that some might steal too much or from the wrong people and so a selective battle against corruption began to keep the elites in line or at least off balance given the rising power of the security agencies.
And then in the fourth term, the one that began with the constitutional reforms, Putin completely turned away from reforms, worried about corruption more as a threat even though it needed it as a source of buying loyalty, found that its ability to manipulate the impoverished population had significantly declined, and increasingly has relied on force.
It is not clear how the regime can move away from this; but what is clear is that the events in Belarus show what could happen in Russia in the spring of 2024. “Not in a direct sense, of course.” Putin has far more levers of power than Lukashenka does. But he too will be forced by circumstances to use force because he does not have any other effective means.
By that time, Travin says, Putin’s government “will be a regime which will have rejected all reforms but will nonetheless still not be able to preserve stability. It will be a regime at odds with all potentially useful partners and restrain from confrontation only with increasingly powerful China.”
“It will be a regime in which a large part of the wealth will be concentrated at the very top of the power pyramid, but the people who possess this wealth will be kept loyal only by the application of force or the threat of its application,” the St. Petersburg modernization scholar continues.
But this has as a consequence something perhaps unexpected: Putin personally will be ever less needed for the preservation of the regime because “the aging leader, having lost charism already will not fulfill useful functions in the mechanism of maintaining the powers that be.”
Putin is likely to remain at the top as long as he lives and remains health. “But sooner or later the regime will remain without Putin.” And then the question will arise: who in fact needs such a regime once he leaves the scene? The answer is not very many people beyond his narrow circle, and that could prove the end of the final stage of Putinism.