Politics & Policy

Putin’s No Stalin

Even soft authoritarianism is not the gulags.

Does Russia have a “democracy deficit?” Certainly–and an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, Andrei Illarionov, made this point clear in a New Year’s Eve interview on the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy:

There are certain trends in our politics and society that no one–including an economist–can ignore. And these trends have to do with the elimination–I’d call it the amputation–of a whole raft of social institutions that serve as feedback mechanisms…. I’m talking about the media and about democratic institutions that serve to transmit signals, including signals of trouble, signals of crises and disasters, to society itself, and to the government. Amputating such institutions leads to disastrous consequences for society as a whole, for the country, and on a significantly larger scale than if the system were operating transparently.

There are pronounced authoritarian tendencies, tendencies that have accelerated in the past year or so. But there is no justification for classifying Russia as a “tyranny” or lumping Russia in with countries like Egypt, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, or even the People’s Republic of China.

For the last five years, I’ve felt Russia is best understood in terms of “managed pluralism”–a system which mixes democratic and authoritarian features, where zones of relative freedom uneasily coexist with areas where the regime exercises more control. Some of my colleagues believe that “managed pluralism” is but a fancy name for soft authoritarianism, a criticism I admit has some merit. But no matter what, it is a far cry from any sort of return to Stalinism.

Consider just two examples. Vyacheslav Kostikov published an article in the February 9, 2005, edition of the newspaper Argumenty I Fakty where he wrote, “Putin looks like a hostage to an incompetent government which has lost the public’s confidence … Isn’t it time the bloated halls of power were swept clean?” One day later, in Novaya Gazeta, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Pribylovsky published a scathing indictment of Putin and his administration, detailing its failures and its corruption, and closed their missive with this phrase: “To Russia’s thinking citizens, it is already clear that the Putin regime is doomed. Regime change is essential.”

It is difficult to imagine that one could publish similar calls for the dismissal of the government or the removal of the leader in most of the real tyrannies that so many Westerners now feel Russia belongs with–without risking life and limb. To my knowledge, none of the authors have been seized by leather-jacketed thugs and worked over in a back room for their comments or analysis.

Critics argue that newspapers (both in their print and online versions) have limited circulation, and that the regime can afford to tolerate a number of “free press” islands across the Russian landscape. Yes, it is very true that these articles would not be transformed into editorials broadcast on the main state-controlled television networks. But our obsession with Putin’s supposedly ironclad control over the media ignores the complexity of the actual situation.

Asked about the future prospects for liberal political movements in Russia–including the ability to get the message out, Nemtsov, in a separate interview, recently noted, “The chances of that aren’t as good as they used to be in the 1990s, but…there are some regional media outlets that Moscow doesn’t control. This makes regional television companies and newspapers very effective resources. There are some national newspapers the Kremlin hasn’t taken over yet; and there is the Internet.”

Indeed, the Russian Internet (Runet) is an extremely dynamic and vibrant sector. Currently, about 15 million Russians use the Internet on a regular basis (about ten percent of the population) but Russia for the last several years have been experiencing 50 percent year-over-year online-population growth. In other words, more Russians are gaining the ability to have access to unfiltered news and analysis–and to debate each other about where the country is headed.

Russians have been protesting over the reform of social benefits–which in January brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of more than 70 Russian cities–it’s a vigorous debate still on-going, even given the limits imposed by the Kremlin. All of this should caution us from casually writing off Russia as an unredeemable tyranny.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is executive editor of The National Interest.

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