December 22, 2011

For Putin, it’s a matter of time

By Eric Morse, The Ottawa Citizen  
December 19, 2011

Vladimir Putin’s days are numbered, but probably not to the extent that his opponents would like. Judging by his performance through the past week, if the anti-Putin demonstrations of last weekend are greeted as tolerantly as those of last weekend were, they are still not going to overthrow any regime. And warning signs have been given that there are limits; local media coverage was heavily censored and influential editors were summarily fired. A cynic might be waiting for the mass arrests to start, but Putin is probably more subtle than that — for now.

Putin will probably win his March Presidential election with a ‘managed majority’. He will then have — nominally — up to 12 more years in power. The ‘revolving-door tsardom’ looks like a guarantee of regime stability. In reality it is anything but. Putin is in a weak position in the long run, because in the end he has no institutional legitimacy.

To survive into succeeding generations, even an authoritarian regime needs broad-based institutional legitimacy of some sort. Although it lasted only 70 years in the end, the Soviet regime had this, mainly conferred by the Communist Party’s much-manipulated but very real leadership in Second World War. Toward the end, no matter how grungy day-to-day existence got, or how sour the jokes were in the street (‘Did you know Ivan changed jobs? He used to steal in the tailor shop but now he steals in the grocery shop.’) nobody seriously questioned the institutions of State and Party.

A seat in the Supreme Soviet might have been nominal but it was a local honour nonetheless. People might have been tired of the processions of black limousines with their blue lights flashing, but the succession of those who rode in them was managed without a hitch from Khrushchev’s emergence in 1956 through Gorbachev’s succession in 1985.

Checks and balances are required in such a system, but unlike those we are used to, they operate mainly at the second tier of power and inside the ruling organs. The Party leaned heavily upon the security apparatus, but made sure that it was never a power unto itself after 1953 when its last Stalinist chief Beria was shot (after at least a Star Chamber proceeding; some proprieties were observed even then). The officers of the Armed Forces never viewed themselves as independent political actors.

Otherwise, it was more or less a collective balance of normative behaviour at the top; the Politburo and Central Committee made sure that none of their individual members got out of line. It was a recipe for stagnation, but 30 years of stability in that part of the world might still provoke nostalgia, and it might have lasted longer if Gorbachev had not tried to fix it without realizing he was breaking a closed system with incalculable consequences.

Contemporary China has a similar system. Perhaps owing to social media, perhaps simply because our own sophistication has evolved and China is far more engaged with the world than Soviet Russia was, we see their internal problems more clearly in real time, but it is clear that the important decisions are taken behind the veil of the Party, whose legitimacy is to be defended at all costs. Given China’s history, almost any alternatives are too terrible to imagine.

The Iranian regime likewise has a broad power base. The middle classes may despise the rule of the mullahs, but by and large the rulers do not have to care particularly; they are broadly supported by the clergy and backed up by a Revolutionary Guard and large armed militia (basij) that has its interests solidly identified with the regime. There may be violent power squabbles, but the regime itself is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Since the end of Soviet power in 1991, institutional legitimacy has been the elephant in the room for Russia’s rulers. Whatever the Communist Party may have been, nothing has replaced it. Putin does not have a broad base that is meaningfully tied to him. He has relied on manipulating the plutocrats through misuse of the judicial system, but the plutocrats themselves are a weak reed, effectively emasculated. He has taken over the levers of State and media power and brought the regional governors under control by personal appointments and outright intimidation. But he has nothing resembling a Revolutionary Guard or armed basij — or a cause beyond his own power for anyone to support — and those elements are crucial to an authoritarian regime in its first generation. So he has tried to substitute personal rule-by-revolving-door, and everyone sees through it.

Putin may last another year, or several, but in the end he will come down — unfortunately, probably messily, and given the range of likely successors, and the continuing lack of binding national institutions, when he does come down those who wished for it may regret that they got their wish.

Eric Morse, a former Canadian diplomat, is vice-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute.

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