Editorial The Economist, 26.10.2017
As the world marks the centenary of the October Revolution, Russia is once again under the rule of the tsar
Seventeen years after Vladimir Putin first became president, his grip on Russia is stronger than ever. The West, which still sees Russia in post-Soviet terms, sometimes ranks him as his country’s most powerful leader since Stalin. Russians are increasingly looking to an earlier period of history. Both liberal reformers and conservative traditionalists in Moscow are talking about Mr Putin as a 21st-century tsar.
Mr Putin has earned that title by lifting his country out of what many Russians see as the chaos in the 1990s and by making it count again in the world. Yet as the centenary of the October revolution draws near, the uncomfortable thought has surfaced that Mr Putin shares the tsars’ weaknesses, too.
Although Mr Putin worries about the “colour” revolutions that swept through the former Soviet Union, the greater threat is not of a mass uprising, still less of a Bolshevik revival. It is that, from spring 2018 when Mr Putin starts what is constitutionally his last six-year term in office after an election that he will surely win, speculation will begin about what comes next. And the fear will grow that, as with other Russian rulers, Tsar Vladimir will leave turbulence and upheaval in his wake.
Mr Putin is hardly the world’s only autocrat. Personalised authoritarian rule has spread across the world over the past 15 years—often, as with Mr Putin, built on the fragile base of a manipulated, winner-takes-all democracy. It is a rebuke to the liberal triumphalism which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey (see article), the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and even Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, have behaved as if they enjoy a special authority derived directly from the popular will. In China Xi Jinping this week formalised his absolute command of the Communist Party (see article).
Mr Putin’s brand of authoritarianism blazed the trail. It evokes Russia’s imperial history, offering a vivid picture of how power works and how it might go wrong.
Like a tsar, Mr Putin surmounts a pyramid of patronage. Since he moved against the oligarchs in 2001, taking control first of the media and then of the oil and gas giants, all access to power and money has been through him. These days the boyars serve at his pleasure, just as those beneath them serve at their pleasure and so on all the way down. He wraps his power in legal procedure, but everyone knows that the prosecutors and courts answer to him. He enjoys an approval rating of over 80% partly because he has persuaded Russians that, as an aide says, “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”
Like a tsar, too, he has faced the question that has plagued Russia’s rulers since Peter the Great—and which acutely confronted Alexander III and Nicholas II in the run-up to the revolution. Should Russia modernise by following the Western path towards civil rights and representative government, or should it try to lock in stability by holding fast against them? Mr Putin’s answer has been to entrust the economy to liberal-minded technocrats and politics to former KGB officers. Inevitably, politics has dominated economics and Russia is paying the price. However well administered during sanctions and a rouble devaluation, the economy still depends too heavily on natural resources. It can manage annual GDP growth of only around 2%, a far cry from 2000-08, which achieved an oil-fired 5-10%. In the long run, this will cramp Russia’s ambitions.
And like a tsar, Mr Putin has buttressed his power through repression and military conflict. At home, in the name of stability, tradition and the Orthodox religion, he has suppressed political opposition and social liberals, including feminists, NGOs and gays. Abroad, his annexation of Crimea and the campaigns in Syria and Ukraine have been burnished for the evening news by a captive, triumphalist media. However justified, the West’s outrage at his actions underlined to Russians how Mr Putin was once again asserting their country’s strength after the humiliations of the 1990s.
What does this post-modern tsar mean for the world? One lesson is about the Russian threat. Since the interference in Ukraine, the West has worried about Russian revanchism elsewhere, especially in the Baltic states. But Mr Putin cannot afford large numbers of casualties without also losing legitimacy, as happened to Nicholas II in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and in the first world war. Because today’s tsar knows history, he is likely to be opportunistic abroad, shadowboxing rather than risking a genuine confrontation. The situation at home is different. In his time in power Mr Putin has shown little appetite for harsh repression. But Russia’s record of terrible suffering suggests that, whereas dithering undermines the ruler’s legitimacy, mass repression can strengthen it—at least for a time. The Russian people still have something to fear.
Mother Russia’s offspring
The other lesson is about succession. The October revolution is just the most extreme recent case of power in Russia passing from ruler to ruler through a time of troubles. Mr Putin cannot arrange his succession using his bloodline or the Communist Party apparatus. Perhaps he will anoint a successor. But he would need someone weak enough for him to control and strong enough to see off rivals—an unlikely combination. Perhaps he will try to cling to power, as Deng Xiaoping did behind the scenes as head of the China Bridge Association, and Mr Xi may intend to overtly, having conspicuously avoided naming a successor after this week’s party congress. Yet, even if Mr Putin became the éminence grise of the Russian Judo Federation, it would only delay the fatal moment. Without the mechanism of a real democracy to legitimise someone new, the next ruler is likely to emerge from a power struggle that could start to tear Russia apart. In a state with nuclear weapons, that is alarming.
The stronger Mr Putin is today, the harder he will find it to manage his succession. As the world tries to live with that paradox, it should remember that nothing is set in stone. A century ago the Bolshevik revolution was seen as an endorsement of Marx’s determinism. In the event, it proved that nothing is certain and that history has its own tragic irony.