Staunton, June 7 – All the issues that so exercised Russian thinking two years ago – the search for a successor and the possibility of a new course, for example, have become largely irrelevant as a result of the fundamental changes in the Putin regime over the last 18 months, according to Russian commentator Tatyana Stanovaya.
Instead, she argues, “the system has been prepared for a long period of conservation and the introduction of a harsh rule of political behavior” in which “everything is divided between the pro-regime and the anti-regime,” the latter increasingly being defined as “criminal” (carnegie.ru/commentary/84676).
This transformation means, Stanovaya continues, that pressure on the media and control over the Internet will intensify and that the regime will work to rein in all public activity. And it also means that “as a result of the new, fragmented system of adopting decisions, the authorities will commit ever greater mistakes.”
“Protests will be suppressed, the real opposition regionalized, and the struggle with anti-regime elements will spread to the systemic parties and the systemic journalists.” As a result of all this, the vulnerability of Putin himself will grow: he will be transformed into a symbol” that cannot be questioned “but his real personal influence will decline.”
And thus, “the regime already is not a Putinist one: it is a regime under Putin and it will continue to expand into one in which the president will be transformed from a subject of politics into an object for manipulation” by various individuals and groups within what used to be his regime alone.
“Today,” Stanovaya writes, “few doubt that the Russian regime has acquired a new quality. The nullification of presidential terms, the attack on Navalny, and the tsunamis of new bans and repressions all show that the mechanism of the formation of the political system in Russia has sharply changed.”
The increased level of repression has attracted the most attention, but “important changes are going on inside the system of power as well, and their consequences will show themselves in the nearest future.”
One of these involves the decline in the level of coordination of action among the key elements of the regime. “The common conservative trend has intensified, but higher political control has weakened and the process of taking decisions has fragmented.” In short, there no longer exists “the old system of supervising domestic policy.”
Instead, responsibility for handling this or that sector has been handed out to one or another bureaucracy and its decisions on how to handle things are not discussed by others. That has created “an administrative vacuum” in which political repressions have shifted from targeted and coordinated actions into a more general and widespread approach.
Anyone who resists any particular use of force puts himself at risk of “political death,” and so few if any do. And that gives the parts of the political system the sense that they can act without having to take into consideration the reactions of anyone else, a situation that ensures they will on more than a few occasions exceed what the system as a whole might want.
Connected to this is a growing hostility to law and legal procedures. They only limit the ability of the components of the regime to act. Instead, “the regime in its actions has shifted in fact to the logic of military times and views threats from the extra-systemic opposition as an extraordinary situation that justifies acting without regard to norms and rules.”
“In the renewed Russia regime, it is not only the mechanism of taking decisions which has changed but the composition of those who take them,” Stanovaya continues. “Strong figures are being pushed out of public power and in their place are coming inconspicuous but highly adaptable executors.”
And she continues that “in place of Putin’s hands-on administration of the first two terms, we see a fragmented field of thousands of hands-on administrators at the level of the force structures, the federal and regional organs of power, parliamentarians and pro-Putin activists” instead.
For the ruling elite, Putin is now something eternal; but he is not in day-to-day charge of specific activities. They are; and that in and of itself changes the regime. “The routinization of repressions, their lack of selectivity and massive qualities mean that now they are directed not by a narrow circle of people but by thousands of employees,” none of which is responsible.
“If earlier any politicized arrest generated conversations about its utility, now, such a question is losing its meaning. Persecution is now taking place on autopilot and it is not important who is taken but only that someone be. Because responsibility is dispersed, no one is responsible, and increasingly each component feels that is the case.
According to Stanovaya, “everyone and no one is involved with political problems; and so ultimately no one is responsible. And that has been compounded by a shift from the functional principle to the branch one in which it is not Putin’s specific appointees who make the decisions but people in these branches.
Putin is increasingly appointing not those with political experience but effective managers. That is positive in one sense – the latter often can manage things better – but it carries with it the certainty that decisions will be made not with an eye to the politics involved but strictly in terms of bureaucratic regularity.
In a period of change, that guarantees mistakes. And while Putin believes he has put a more or less perfect system in place, what he is doing will undermine the very possibility that it will be as trouble-free or last as long as he and his supporters imagine.