Stephen Hanson: Power Play in Putin’s Russia
A unique power sharing agreement in Russia between President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is one of intrigue. In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Stephen Hanson examines what this relationship is about, its implications for Russia and the major social and political issues facing this former Soviet country. Hanson contributed a related article to the July 2011 volume of The Annals, “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World.” Stephen Hanson is the Vice Provost for International Affairs and Director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. A podcast and transcript of his interview are below.
Stephanie Marudas: Your latest article in The Annals volume on patrimonial power in the modern world takes us to Russia. In your first sentence you write, “The leadership succession after the conclusion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term surely represents one of the more bizarre experiments in modern political history.” Take us through what happened in Russia back in 2008 when Putin left the Russian presidential office, and explain what you think is bizarre about the whole situation.
Stephen Hanson: It really is a fascinating story and it begins somewhat before 2008. [R]ight around 2004 when Putin was reelected for his second term, everyone began talking about the so-called 2008 problem in Russian politics, and by that they meant the fact that the constitution that Boris Yeltsin had introduced in 1993, like the U.S. Constitution, limits the president to two four-year terms, but basically everybody in Russia knew that Putin was the lynchpin of power and by far the most popular politician also in the country. And the question of how he would step down given all of the centralized power that he held in 2008 became sort of the topic that everyone discussed in all the newspapers and kitchens among the Putin administration itself. And the options were not very good. Either Putin would have to just step down as the constitution demanded but then try to figure out how to ensure a succession that would keep all of these very, very carefully constructed lines of loyalty to the Kremlin intact, or he had to find a way to stay in power that still looked constitutional enough that he could continue to have his sort of claim of being a modern democratic and European leader. And so they experimented with a lot of options.
I make the case in the article that we can understand this very effectively by using Weber’s classic categories of legitimate domination, which we all know from our early graduate school training, but I still think it is one of the keys to understanding political power. And that of course means that there are really only three ways you can organize power politically in a way that people perceive as legitimate. You can either hand down power traditionally through established lineages, and that is the essence of classic patrimonialism. You can hand down power through procedures and laws, elections being the most common example in the modern world, and that is the rational, legal type of legitimacy. And, finally, you can have leaders who say that they stand beyond all rules and all traditions, and that is charismatic legitimacy and people perceive that as legitimate if they think the person is somehow superhuman or heroic or otherwise magical.
The problem basically, to sum up, is that Putin discovered, actually in practice in the 2007-2008 transition, that he could not really try any of those strategies and make them work in Russia, for historical reasons. He could not really have a straightforward, rational, legal election because, in fact, Putin did want to have some loyalist take over and keep all of the bargains that he had struck to hold the Russian state together and an open election would not have guaranteed any particular result in that area. You could not pass power through a lineage because Putin does not have one like that. He certainly was not interested in passing power to his daughters, for example, even though some other post-Soviet leaders have done that and that would have been the classical way to build a patrimonial role in its normal form. And he did not really embrace the idea of being a charismatic leader who stood beyond all history. Russians have become very allergic to those kinds of arguments since the collapse of the Soviet Union which, after all, was based on seventy-four years of, you know, charismatic legitimacy on the idea that Communism represented a world beyond this one. And this is a more cynical age and Putin himself is cynical enough that this just never would have flown, to sort of describe himself as a second Lenin or something like that.
So after experimenting with versions of all three of those types of legitimacy and succession, they hit upon a strategy that is really quite bizarre and that was having an election for a new president, but keeping Putin on as prime minister to run the show. Of course, Dmitry Medvedev, the current president of Russia, was elected in this process that was hardly democratic from a Western procedural point of view but which did give him a plebiscitarian basis of legitimacy, the people have spoken and Medvedev is now the president. [B]ut all the bargains that Putin had struck, the kind of patrimonial lineages that the Putin regime had been based on and, most importantly, the economic ties and bargains that Putin had been able to strike with the leading figures in the security services and the Kremlin, those could all be maintained by Putin in his new post as prime minister, even though technically the president, Medvedev, outranks the prime minister in the Russian constitution and could fire Putin at any moment if he decided to do so. So you have a kind of plebiscitarian patrimonialism, I argue in the piece, that really does combine both types of legitimacy. It does depend on elections, it is not just patrimonial rule even though a lot of our colleagues in comparative politics have begun to classify Putin’s regime like that. But it is clearly not just plebiscitarian or just electorally based, because Putin does still control all of the serious levers of power. And, interestingly enough, the same process and problem for 2012 is now emerging as we talk about this event. A new election is coming up as scheduled by the constitution and again Medvedev and Putin are debating how to keep these interesting dances moving forward.
SM: Now, you bring up the term plebiscitarian patrimonialism that you write about in your article. And you get into the point that it is the Russian leadership [that] claims to have this right to, I guess, rule the state like its own property but, then again, the people voted for Putin and Medvedev. So from an outside perspective it looks like a democratic process, that the people chose them but yet Putin is still very much in control. Can you tell us more just about this idea of treating the state like its own personal property?
SH: Thank you for that question because it allows me to clarify. The essence of the patrimonial part of Putin’s regime is, actually, the classical Weberian definition of patrimonialism and that is the notion that the state is the personal property of the ruler and his loyalists. And we will say “his” here, using the gendered language, because it does typically have the kind of macho component to it. This is the work, actually, of Professor Julia Adams and I build very much on it. And the idea here is that the Russian leadership does not see the Russian state as somehow representing social interest in the way that we might think of in classical Western democratic theory. Really the notion here is that there is a group of elites who have a kind of right to take the state in whatever direction they want to take it and they also control the state as personal property, which, by the way, means that the oil and gas revenue, the mineral revenue, the Russian economy itself is, in effect, their personal property. It does not mean people do not have jobs in the market, it does not mean there is not a scope for people to be entrepreneurial; of course they really only control what the Soviets used to call the commanding heights of the economy. But in an economy that is built so much on oil and gas exports, if you control the major oil companies and the natural gas monopoly you control just hundreds of billions of dollars. Russia is the biggest, well second biggest, oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and sometimes it has passed up Saudi Arabia, actually, in the last year. And it is by far the biggest natural gas exporter as well. So this is the key to the personal property I am talking about.
Everyone knows actually that Putin’s regime is built on these kinds of ties and those people who run the major oil and gas companies, as I say, are the loyalists who make things run for the vast majority of Russian GDP. But the plebiscitarian part is there, so this is not just a kind of dynasty. It is not Saudi Arabia, where you have a monarchy of the straightforward, traditional type. It is not a patrimonial regime; the sort that, let’s say, Gaddafi has in Libya where power is still concentrated in a single individual and clan and the state is treated as personal property but there is no veneer of kind of popular sovereignty or electoral legitimacy. The Russians, Putin himself, take elections very seriously. That does not mean, by the way, that the elections are free or fair; they are not. Opposition parties are prevented from running, any serious opposition is shut down quickly. The parties that are in the Russian Duma, the Parliament, are ones that have been approved by the Kremlin, that really do not get too upset about key issues of power, and the elections themselves are very carefully crafted to produce a result that is more or less mandated in the Kremlin. But that is what plebiscites are like all over the world. Even the term plebiscitarian legitimacy does not mean some kind of representative, rational, legal process. It means essentially an up or down, you know, yea or nay, by “the people” on the regime’s future. So that is important to legitimacy in Russia, and I can tell you that if Putin decided to abolish elections all together and simply declare himself a kind of czar, Russians would feel really upset about that, including people who are loyalists now, who do believe that Putin represents a kind of modernizing force, or that Medvedev does. So while the elections are not Western-style, free and fair elections, they still matter a lot.
SM: I was wondering about that to some degree, how much Russia’s history with the czars and the monarchy lends itself to patrimonialism as we see it in Russia today. I’m not sure if there is a connection there or not.
SH: Yes, in many ways my article is an attempt to argue against the sort of straightforward reading of Russian history as always being patrimonial. Czarist rule definitely was, in the classic sense; and Weber himself developed the term patrimonialism, thinking in part about the Romanov dynasty. But clearly the Soviet Union was not patrimonial; as I mentioned earlier it was based on a Marxist-Leninist claim to charismatic legitimacy, the ability to overturn time and space themselves to build a new kind of society, and after the Soviet Union collapsed really there has not been any kind of ideology that anybody accepted in the vast majority of Russian political society. So we are not talking about a restoration of czarism. If we were, by the way, it would look very, very different. We would be talking about dynastic rule, families, that is, literally passing power from elders to heirs. We would be talking about a much more traditional approach to Russian foreign policy in which boundaries would be much less significant. It is interesting, for example, that when Russia went to war against Georgia in 2008 the endpoint of this war was the recognition by Russia of two new independent states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia; by the way very few other countries in the world accept that claim, but they did not annex parts of Georgia to Russia and just called them the Russian Empire. This is still a state that sees itself as one of the international states in the world system with boundaries that are sanctified by international law and that is the solution they wanted to have everybody endorse after the conflict with Georgia. So in a way I am taking on the argument that this is all about continuity. That is the sort of standard way of thinking about Russia, and it misses many of the subtleties and the things that make Russia today much more interesting than that.
SM: Let’s talk about Putin and who he is and the image that he projects. Oftentimes we see him as this symbol of manliness, you know, shooting guns, hunting, riding horses. Perhaps a suggestion [that] he is the patriarch. How does this play out in Russia and the view from the rest of the world?
SH: Well, there is no question that the claim to machismo for Vladimir Putin is crucial to his whole political image, and it has been from the start. I think he sees himself as a kind of hero of masculinity in the sense that he took on a state that was weak, that was fragmented, that he saw as totally corrupted, that was in danger, from his point of view, of disintegrating all together – he says that all the time, by the way – and he rebuilt it. His claim to fame is that he took a Russian state that people were just laughing at in the world system and made it again a force to be reckoned with, even if he had to do that, from his point of view, by rejecting a lot of Western liberal principles, which he does not care that much about anyway. And so from the beginning he portrayed himself to the Russian people as this sort of can-do, you know, colonel from the K.G.B. who came in from this network of tough guys. He uses a lot of sort of street slang when he addresses people politically in a way that previous Russian leaders had not.
There was this song in the early part of the 2000s when Putin was first put in power, I mean really remarkably this group called “Singing Together,” which was three women singing about Putin who would have been, in their view, the perfect boyfriend. It was called “Такого как Путин” which basically translates as “A Man Like Putin.” “I want a man like Putin who doesn’t beat me, who doesn’t drink too much, who keeps his promises,” and it went on in that vein and it actually became genuinely popular. And ever since then there has been a sort of periodic stream of scenes, as you said, of Putin taking off his shirt, you know, wrestling tigers to the ground, not literally but, you know, with a tranquilizer gun. And it works, I mean, strangely enough I think after that period of the 1990s where the Russians really were feeling like they had become the laughingstock of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This sort of image of machismo and the willingness to speak in slang and the rest, it does have a kind of resonance in Russian society. Even today, it is one of the things that makes Putin popular.
SM: So here we have Putin, holding onto power in this unique power sharing agreement with Medvedev. And to what degree is it working? We have seen reports in the press that Putin and Medvedev, there might be a rift between them, you know, they are not talking to each other sometimes, they say contradictory statements. Is this back-firing on Putin? What is going on here?
SH: It is definitely not back-firing, and I have to say when I wrote the article, which is, you know, it is again interesting timing because I wrote it for the previous electoral cycle and now it is out and we have the new one coming up. I anticipated a lot more struggle in defining how this regime would operate because the different principles of legitimacy were so antithetical. I mean, you have got this supposedly popularly elected President Medvedev, you have got patrimonial Putin in charge, you have still got calls to get rid of the constitution and try to proclaim some kind of empire, at least in the Russian Nationalist spectrum, and then the economic crisis had just hit when I finished up the article and it looked like it would be very difficult to preserve this kind of strange mixture of principles of legitimacy. But it has worked out much better than that and I have to say I did not anticipate the extent to which this kind of mixture really does prevent a frontal attack on the regime. It divides and conquers in a funny kind of way. And by that I mean for Russian liberals who really hope that the state will do something to modernize Russia, to end its backwardness and to build a high-tech industry, let’s say, or tackle corruption, the fact that there is a President Medvedev who, of course, speaks the language of modernization, who talks about reform, who has got an image of being a lawyer and a sort of modern individual who uses blogs on the Internet and so forth. That all makes some of them feel like Medvedev is the future and Putin is the past and, well, at least Medvedev is there pushing. And so that keeps them on board.
Meanwhile, the Russian nationalists or conservatives or people who really do not like the West at all like the fact very much that Vladimir Putin is still prime minister, that he is still the leader, that he is still the acknowledged number one in the partnership and they can say, “Well, Medvedev is there for show.” For the West, too, it kind of has this interesting effect of dividing opposition to Russia because you have people who can look at the tandem, as they call it, of Putin and Medvedev and say, “Well, this is basically a modern European regime and we like to do business with them, so let’s be allies.” And then those people who are opposed cannot help but notice that there is a Medvedev out there and maybe it makes some sense to try to have a good working relationship with him. President Obama, of course, meets frequently with President Medvedev and they have a very good working relationship. And the reset that the U.S. administration in Obama’s first term has adopted as a policy toward Russia has worked, largely because there is a Medvedev out there who can respond to American initiatives for cooperation in a way that Putin, you know, with his sort of persona found it difficult to do. So they have managed to keep it going in very much the same form throughout one of the worst crises that has hit Russia in the post-Soviet era, that is the big financial crisis that really was very severe in Russia, and again they are going into this next election with the same dance.
By the way, it just really does not matter who is president or who is prime minister in this tandem. Clearly it will be Medvedev and Putin in some form or another once again, unless something goes terribly wrong, and whether one is on the top and the other is in number two position or the other way around is really now irrelevant.
SM: Your assessments of the situation in Russia today, how does that hold up among your counterparts in Russia? Does the academic world see this happening, too? Is this a unique assessment on your part, to your knowledge? Or is there consensus about what is happening in Russia?
SH: I think there is a mixture of consensus and debate, as usual. There is a consensus that Putin is the number one figure. Absolutely nobody anymore thinks Medvedev is somehow, you know, running the show and Putin is resisting it. There have been a number of times when it has become clear that Putin really had to make the key decision on an issue of really serious national import. And Medvedev never criticizes Putin by name directly; he sometimes obliquely criticizes things that Putin has said. For example, when the Obama administration decided to engage in the campaign in Libya, Putin said that this was like a medieval crusade against people in the Middle East. And Medvedev then, about a few days later, said that using the word crusade to describe these events was inadmissible. But he did not say, “I criticize Vladimir Putin for saying it,” he just said, “To use this word is inadmissible.” So, you know, this keeps the blogosphere buzzing in Russia for a few days and everyone wonders whether there is really a rift and so forth. But it is pretty obvious that Putin really is number one and, as I say, everybody now knows that. And Russians know that, too, ordinary Russians, not just the experts.
Where the debate lies is [in] the significance of this tandem, you know, the significance of the little splits that emerge here and there, the possibilities that might emerge if Medvedev could be more independent, if he becomes president again in the next election that gives him a six-year term because the constitution has been altered to create the possibility of a six-year term. If Putin, on the other hand, wins the presidency, if that is what happens then he might be able to run for two six-year terms because, once again, he would have two terms under the constitution, so you would have twelve years of Putin. So the debate about whether that would be almost pure patrimonialism at that point, you know, returning to a kind of Brezhnev-style of regime of one-man rule that just goes on and on. I think we have serious debates about that. But, you know, the contours of Russian politics are not quite as unclear as they used to be. I mean, that period of 2008 it was not all, I do not think anyone understood how that would work out, including even Putin himself. But now that it has been established I think none of us in the field of Russian studies are having a hard time figuring out kind of how the regime operates.
SM: You have to wonder with Putin, is he perhaps a man who just cannot let go of power and perhaps feels entitled to stay in power?
SH: His popularity has waned a bit I should say, and this is just natural. I mean he came in in 2000 and he was extraordinarily popular, taking over for Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was despised by that point. He seemed to be, you know, sick most of the time. He was sort of embarrassingly out of touch. Russia was falling apart and so on and so forth. And Putin came in and the economy turned around. I mean, the key point is that the Russian economy in the first two terms of Putin’s presidency grew by seven percent a year, on average. You know, Putin had promised he would double Russian GDP within ten years and he basically kept that pledge, which is truly phenomenal, largely due to the rising oil and gas prices but not only that. You know, you can argue that many of those economic effects would have occurred no matter who was in power because it was just the rebound from the Soviet collapse and the rising energy prices that led the way, but he did, you know, get credit for that and so ordinary Russians definitely saw him as the catalyst for that change and the person who turned Russia’s fortunes around. And, again, the machismo element was there in a way that also made him very popular.
But it has faded a bit. The economic crisis cut the notion that he could always produce miracles down a little bit. Medvedev has become popular among a certain strand of intelligentsia who do look to him to be the more reformist figure and that makes Putin seem more conservative, and just the amount of time that has gone by now with Putin more or less calling the shots, we are into the second decade and that starts to make Russians feel like they are again becoming something other than European, which is very important to the identity, certainly of Russian intellectuals and urban dwellers. So while Putin remains the most popular and important figure in Russian politics by far, there is, you know, increasing grumbling. Corruption has not gotten better, it has gotten worse. There is really still no security for Russian property rights, the economy is so dependent on oil and gas and everyone in Russia knows that. So, you know, I would not say that there is any kind of revolutionary sentiment brewing. People are generally willing to let the regime continue as long as it produces decent results, again compared to where they were with Soviet power or with the 1990s under Yeltsin. But, you know, there are some stirrings and no one should make the mistake of thinking Russian politics is secure in its current form forever.
SM: Let’s talk about what Russia looks like today and what its future prospects are. If you could address the current demographic situation we see there.
SH: It is not that it is untrue that the declining population in Russia is a serious problem; it clearly is. The population is aging as it is throughout Europe, that is going to create a bigger burden for the welfare state going forward as more people are on pensions and fewer are in the working class. The overall population of Russia will almost certainly shrink by tens of millions because at this point the process is well underway and it is not going to be reversed easily. Russia now has a little over one-hundred forty million people and some projections have it going down to about a hundred million, you know, by the middle part of the century.
But, having said that I think, you know, from a sociological point of view there is a flip-side that is not typically mentioned. And that is that Russia does not have the problem you have in so many Middle Eastern patrimonial states or ones that are now falling apart, where you have, you know, just huge populations of unemployed, particularly young men. So the flip-side of the demographic bust in Russia is that there are not that many people, young people, who cannot be accommodated by this oil and gas economy who have nothing to do but be on the streets and protest. So one reason why the opposition in Russia has been fairly weak–demographically, you know, the people who are angriest are often older and as I hit my fifties here I can understand, you know, the energy level does start to sink and it is difficult to really spend all of your time in Internet cafes organizing revolutionary movements.
I am not trying to trivialize this; obviously there are some serious problems when people get older and health care will be a crisis and Russian consumption of alcohol remains disturbingly high, as the government knows very well. But I do think that people sometimes overstate the case for, you know, for example the complete collapse of the Russian state because of demographic crisis is, I think, highly unlikely if not impossible. You know, Canada, which is the other really giant northern country we have in the world, has a population probably one-fifth the size of the Russian population and it functions fine. No one worries about Canada collapsing as a state because of its lack of people. You really do not want, you know, hundreds of millions of people living in the tundra and, actually, Russia has the problem that much of its population under Stalin was concentrated in frozen zones, you know, in the north where Stalin built artificial cities to produce minerals, oil, and gas. Those cities are shrinking but they are still very large and they cost enormous amounts of money to heat and the logistics and transportation are daunting.
So there is an argument that actually the Russian demographic crisis is again sort of a two-sided thing. It is not all bad if you mean by that that you get to a population level that is more sustainable. And, also, Russia has a lot of immigrants and right now there are a lot of tensions because the immigrants tend to come from places like central Asia and the Caucuses so, you know, ethnic tensions can emerge and they have a lot in Moscow and other Russian cities. But because Russia is still the strongest economy by far in the former Soviet region, it means that it is still a magnet for people to come to the country, which does compensate, to some extent, for the loss of the Russian ethnic population over time, as long as Russia can incorporate those migrants in a way that is successful, which, you know, remains to be seen.
SM: What drew you to do this research exactly?
SH: This has been my field for twenty years so until I recently moved into academic administration I more or less spent every day following the ups and downs of politics in Russia. And so what could be more interesting, you know, than this crazy 2008 election and its quite bizarre result. There are some similarities in other parts of the world that make the topic interesting, too. I mean, you can see, and I mention this briefly in the article, the difficulties in Zimbabwe, this, you know, bizarre power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, and sort of efforts around the world to combine patrimonial power with plebiscitarian legitimacy that, you know, have different forms. But it is the only place in the world I know of, in history, where you have had a patrimonial leader who is in principle subordinated to a president. I mean, that is just unusual. I mean, typically you want the patrimonial leader to be the, you know, just obvious number one and instead here you have a patrimonial leader who is officially subordinate, and that is strange. Now, of course, in reality of Medvedev ever tried to fire Putin… well, let’s just say that if Medvedev disappears for health reasons then the prime minister becomes the president and there is a new election ninety days later. So it is fairly clear I am sure to Medvedev himself what would happen if he tried to exercise that formal right to fire Putin, but still the fact that it is, on paper, possible is really quite strange.
So it attracted me from kind of a political point of view, from a policy point of view in U.S.–Russian relations, and from an intellectual point of view, it is a very interesting experiment.
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