Staunton, Dec. 25 – There are four basic kinds of authoritarianism – monarchies, military rule, party rule, and personalist dictatorships – Grigory Golosov says; and Putin’s regime falls into the last category, a tragedy for Russia because such regimes almost inevitably “sooner or later begin to make fatal mistakes.”
That is because, the political scientist at St. Petersburg’s European University says, the leader is increasingly cut off from good information and can act without the constraints that either multiple centers or power or accepted rules of the game the other three kinds of authoritarianism feature (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2022/12/25/nikto-ne-skazal-net).
An important distinctive feature of Putin’s personalist dictatorship, Golosov says, is that it had its origin in “the imperfect electoral democracy of the 1990s. Typically, such types of regime have a different trajectory and appear as the result of the degradation of other kinds of authoritarian regimes.”
While personalist dictatorships strive to eliminate all multiple centers of power and all rules, Putin’s began at a time when there were competitive centers of power in the form of the oligarchs and elections. He sidelined the former and he showed he could win the latter, something that led many to believe that he always could and thus deserved support.
During Putin’s first two terms, there was a level of “informal institutionalization” that acted as a constraint; but after he returned to the presidency following the Medvedev interregnum, Putin moved quickly and consistently to destroy or at least divide all alternative centers of power and to reduce elections to a complete fiction.
As a result, Golosov says, Putin’s rule was “transformed into a purely personalist dictatorship;” and the mistakes that have followed, in particular the disastrous invasion of Ukraine and the break with the West, are the result of that and the unique way in which he achieved his personalist dictatorship.
In the coming years, there are compelling reasons to think that the country won’t become either a monarchy or a party regime and that a military rule is extremely unlikely. That is unfortunate because military rule is the kind of authoritarianism that most easily opens the way for democratization.
“Of all authoritarian regimes,” the political scientist says, “military regimes more often than others can evolve toward democracy. Not because the military are democrats but because its members cannot establish a stable power, constantly fight with one another, and at a certain pont decide that it would be better to hand over power to civilian politicians.”
According to Golosov, “democracy is a mechanism which allows that to happen,” especially if the successor democrats are careful to amnesty the military rulers they have replaced. Democratization, of course, doesn’t happen because of demands for it from the population: “ideologically motivated democratization is quite rare.”
Those facts make Russia’s near-term prospects bleak indeed. The masses don’t want democracy, and neither do the elites. Instead, many in the elites still think Putin may manage to escape his current problems and that his having forced Western firms to leave Russia will offer them opportunities for enrichment.
Putin is likely to be able to hold on for some time; but he is also likely to
make ever more “gargantuan” mistakes, the kind of mistakes that will cost his
country even more dearly than the ones he has already made. The question really is which one of those will prove fatal.