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Putin’s autocracy and the economy

A review of The Putin System: An Opposing View. By: Grigory Yavlinsky. Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2019.

April 23, 2020 - Artem Patalakh - Books and Reviews

In the late 1980s, the ex-member states of the Communist camp in Central and Eastern Europe embarked on a transition toward a market economy and democracy. Thirty years on, it is clear that, while many of them have successfully achieved their initial goals, Russia’s developmental path has gone into reverse, giving birth to Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime and an economic system that is commonly referred to as “state capitalism.” Has this developmental path been incidental or natural? Are its causes merely political or do they involve a wider range of life spheres?

The Putin System: An Opposing View addresses this question from an economic standpoint. The acclaimed Russian economist and opposition leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, argues that the market reforms of the 1990s formed a system of “peripheral capitalism.” Its main feature was that it lacked innovative industries that could generate internal economic growth mechanisms. Instead, the peripheral capitalism relied upon natural resources, scant in number and simple in content. Such a system required no competitiveness for its successful functioning, which eventually entailed the country’s gradual transition to autocracy, starting from the 1990s.

Yavlinsky traces the evolution of the Russian political regime through three stages: the Yeltsin presidency, the period of 2000-2012, and after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. The book’s last chapter makes a—rather pessimistic—forecast about Russia’s further development, stating that the country is progressively moving from “peripheral” to “parochial” authoritarianism. This process is accompanied by Russia’s rising self-isolation from developed countries, an increasing marginalisation of Russia’s position in a highly technological and competitive world economy, and a growing number of totalitarian traits in the country’s political regime.

Despite his strongly critical stance on Putin’s regime, Yavlinsky’s tone is moderate; he speaks as an intellectual, largely refraining from using emotional phrases typical of opposition leaders. When describing the distinctive features of the Russian political regime at each stage, the author succeeds in showing a remarkably accurate and holistic picture, even though he uses many abstract terms and is hardly known for eloquence as a politician. While reading the book, one can feel that Yavlinsky loves his country and criticises Putin’s “peripheral authoritarianism” not formally, because it is undemocratic per se—but, rather, due to his deep belief that it is pulling the country back and undermining its international reputation.

For an international reader, The Putin System helps debunk some hoaxes about Putin’s Russia that are widespread overseas. Yavlinsky convincingly shows that, despite the existence of a more pluralistic political system, the 1990s were hardly a period of progressive democracy. In fact, the president enjoyed a disproportionate amount of power even then, and his incompetence in conducting economic reforms ultimately molded the social and economic roots of the future autocracy. To those who believe in Putin’s strong ideological stance, the author compellingly demonstrates the role of ideational factors in his system should not be overstated. Putin plays on hoaxes, emotional sentiments and the everyday cynicism that is extensive among the poorly- educated and politically unsavvy people. To those thinking that Putin’s confrontation with the West is aimed at making the world order more fair, the book cogently argues that since its beginning, this policy has reflected the Russian elites’ desperate unwillingness to admit that the country’s economic weakness will not end in the observable future. This made it largely impossible for Putin to gain importance in international politics by respecting international rules and eventually induced him to resort to belligerent rhetoric and aggressive foreign policy. Finally, to those deeming the Putin regime as the restitution of Soviet political life, Yavlinsky persuasively shows that while the USSR’s ideology substantially relied upon people’s positive emotions and offered—perhaps, a wrong and naïve vision of their future, Putin’s propaganda is mostly built upon negative sentiments. Putin predominantly exploits the narratives of the past.

The Putin System is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary Russian politics. However, this book definitely should not be taken as a sole source of knowledge about the Putin regime since it takes little account of the non-economic factors in its evolution. The most important among them is, perhaps, the psychology and personal beliefs of the key personalities involved in Russian politics, well described by Mikhail Zygar in All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.

As for the book’s shortcomings, perhaps the most conspicuous one is that Yavlinsky depicts many issues in terms of a struggle between the viewpoint of the Kremlin and his party’s viewpoint. The reader is given no opportunity to adequately compare them with the stances of other democratic movements, the existence of which is not even mentioned by the author. While this is understandable given that Yavlinsky is a party leader personally involved in political struggle, such an incomplete presentation of alternatives contrasts with the author’s generally unemotional and unbiased tone, leaving the reader with an ambiguous perception.

Another weakness of The Putin System concerns examples which are unnaturally too few to sustain such a well-thought theoretical argumentation. This is probably due to the fact that the book was originally written in Russian and aimed at the Russians who are well aware of their country’s recent history—yet, to my mind, the author should have better illustrated his reflections while preparing the English edition. The lack of examples, unfortunately, makes the book less convincing, harder to read, and perhaps uninteresting, especially for those lacking a good knowledge of Russian politics.

Similar concerns can be raised about the usage of references which are strikingly infrequent. This might be partly due to the fact that the book is written in the form of analytical reflections rather than a study in the strict sense of the term. However, Yavlinsky often omits references even when he implicitly admits borrowing an idea from another source in constructions like “according to some experts.” Even though this had no effect on the book’s ability to be published, the overall shortage of references leaves a dubious impression on the reader.

This notwithstanding, Yavlinsky’s carefully crafted and cohesively written arguments make The Putin System an analytically strong and thought-provoking source about the Putin regime. Importantly, this is one of the few works of contemporary Russian opposition intellectuals that are translated into English. Hopefully, it will contribute to a better dialogue and understanding between Western and Russian liberal intellectuals.

Artem Patalakh holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan. He has published a number of academic articles on soft power, democracy and human rights promotion, Russian and EU foreign policies, and the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space.

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