UCLA International Institute, June 6, 2018 — “Russia has a regime that was forged by a very dramatic modernization [in] the first 10 years of this century, but whose top officials now seek to reverse the social consequences of that development,” said Daniel Treisman at the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies on May 24.
“It's an informational autocracy in which a ruler aims to secure compliance, mostly by manipulating information flows and disabling potential challengers, rather than through large-scale violent repression and intimidation, although there is some of that,” he elaborated.
A professor of political science at UCLA, Treisman discussed his newly published edited volume, “The New Autocracy: Information, Politics and Policy in Putin's Russia” (Brookings Institution, 2018). The book is the culmination of a three-year collaboration supported by the Carnegie Corporation that sought to understand decision making in the Putin regime.*
Contributors to the volume include many well-known contemporary Russian commentators and analysts — among them, Anna Kachkaeva, Maria Lipman, Evgenia Nazrullaeva, Ella Paneyakh, Nikolay Petrov, Konstantin Sonin, Kirill Rogov, Andrei Soldatov, Catherine Schulmann, Anton Sobolev and Alexei Zakharov — as well as a number of junior scholars and graduate students from both Russia and western countries.
Dispelling common misconceptions about Russia
The main motivation for the study, said Treisman, was to dispel imprecise images of the Putin regime that circulate widely in the media and public debates today.
Although contemporary Russia has a strong leader, a centralized state, superpower ambitions and an aggressive foreign policy, Treisman rejected the notion that it is simply a modernized version of the Soviet Union. The Putin regime has no cohesive ruling party, no communist ideology and is far more open and capitalist than the USSR, he observed.
Neither can the Putin regime legitimately be called a police state. “[T]he security services are highly fragmented by clan, factional and inter-agency rivalries,” remarked the scholar. “They're [also] divided by generational, bureaucratic and personal conflicts to the extent [that] they can't really act cohesively.”
While Russian politics and society are indeed characterized by massive corruption — “Nobody bothers to deny that anymore,” said Treisman — kleptocracy alone cannot explain a number of the regime’s policies. He questioned, for example, that the drive for self-enrichment accounted for such policies as the insurgency in the Donbass (eastern Ukraine), the intervention in Syria to support Bashar Al Assad and the impressive modernization of the Army that has taken place over the past decade.
Post-2012: Stalled modernization and informational autocracy
Treisman described an enormous, albeit incomplete, modernization in Russia between 1999 and 2011.
Russian gross national product rose substantially (from roughly US$ 13,000 in 1999 to US$ 24,000 in 2011), wages and pensions rose about 11 percent annually, mobile phone penetration increased exponentially, educational levels rose significantly, computer ownership and Internet usage grew rapidly (by 2012, three-quarters of Russian households had a computer and 55 percent of the population logged onto the Internet at least once a month), more and more Russians traveled abroad and businessmen began to use Russian commercial courts to resolve disputes. Significantly, civic activism also began to emerge, especially with respect to environmental issues.
“[A]s the electoral season of 2011–12** got nearer, thousands of young people volunteered to be election observers… [a]nd when they recorded evidence of significant ballot stuffing and fraud, tens of thousands of people took to the streets,” he continued. “This marked, I would say, the culmination of this phase of Russia's modernization and… triggered Putin's reactionary response.”
A key feature of this response was managing political information flows. Treisman argued that Putin has in fact created a new model of autocracy — informational autocracy — an idea on which he has published elsewhere with Russian economist Sergei Guriev.
Unlike the classic authoritarian leaders of the 20th century, who deployed mass violence to intimidate and subdue their populations, “Putin and other dictators like Hugo Chavez and Victor Orban are authoritarian leaders of a less violent, less ideological type,” said Treisman, “We call them informational autocrats. They recognize that violent repression in modern societies is costly and often counter-productive and that there's an easier way to survive as an authoritarian leader with concentrated power.
“[L]eaders of this type tend to co-opt the media when they can, to get the state and private press to support them, to print positive images of them. They can also use censorship — overt censorship when necessary. Like democracies,” he explained, “regimes like this are pre-occupied with opinion polls, but not as a way of finding out what the population thinks, rather, as a way of checking that their information control and censorship and propaganda are working.”
Russian politics in the second decade of Putin’s rule has also, he said, come to operate via two systems: normal politics, or autopilot, and “manual control” (ruchnoe upravlenie), said the speaker. In the first, Putin does not intervene and policy making plays out as “a vicious competition between bureaucratic factions, business actors, regional elites and powerful individuals who fight among themselves for their own interests,” said Treisman.
In the manual control mode, Putin takes a stand and gets involved, frequently dictating what should happen. But this mode runs a risk for the Russian leader. “[I]f he steps in and it doesn't work, which happens surprisingly often, it risks eroding Putin's image of authoritative and effective leadership,” observed the speaker. “And that may be why Putin is quite reluctant to take a position on a lot of issues.”
The resort to autocracy, even if of a less violent hue, and the alternation between governance by automatic pilot and direct intervention is causing the machinery of state to deteriorate. “The system works… but the way it works is less and less effective in most regards, not necessarily outside the country, but inside the country,” emphasized Treisman.
In conclusion, Treisman judged the current political system in Russia as unstable, but not subject to immediate collapse. “It represents a balance between two forces: the transformational social impact of modernization and the attempt by the Kremlin to use modern media and technology to preserve an archaic structure of power,” he said.
Whenever the opportunity for real change arrives again in Russia, he warned that serious obstacles would have to be overcome. Those include the need to reform the security forces, law enforcement and the judicial system — which continue to the operate according to the perverse incentives of Soviet times— as well as dealing with the not inconsequential power amassed by Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov. The latter, said the author, “has demonstrated the ability to deploy thousands of battle-hardened fighters in Ukraine and Syria and to stage violent special operations in Russia and abroad.”
Topics for further discussion
In her response to Treisman’s remarks, Bryn Rosenfeld (political science department, University of Southern California), welcomed “The New Autocracy” as an excellent and much-needed addition to literature on Russian governance post-2012.
In addition to challenging “ossified conventional wisdom” on the role of the silovoki (members of the security services) in the Putin regime, Rosenfeld highlighted the book’s analyses of the Russian court system, the growing role of outsiders and para-statal organizations in policy implementation, the Kremlin’s geo-rating surveys, as well as the authors' efforts to determine “what constitutes reliable evidence on Russian politics today.”
Rosenfeld offered several avenues for further discussion. She began by arguing that while important, the informational strategies explored in the book might be over-emphasized relative to economic co-optation strategies with respect to both the media and state workers. She pointed out, for example, that straightforward monetary incentives are offered to journalists who write pro-regime stories.
“Is Russia's modernization under Putin primarily a threat to the stability of his rule or is it also a source of the regime's resilience?” she asked. Specifically, Rosenfeld pointed out that Putin has carefully preserved employment in the state sector to protect what he perceives as his base, saying, “I think this says something about how the regime survives even in an inauspicious climate of austerity.”
“He has pushed the cost of adjustment onto the population as a whole, rather than his key allies, by devaluing the ruble,” she explained. “And though he also cut social programs and pensions, even there, by raising the pension age, he's largely avoided taking existing entitlements away from his base.”
Rather than generating support for democratic values, she commented, modernization in Russia (a top-down affair) might be expected more to impel social forces to “renegotiate their contract with the regime without endangering the regime’s hold on power” rather than make demands for fundamental political change.
Finally, Rosenfeld turned to the implications of the book for the political science theories of autocracy and competitive authoritarianism. “The notion that Russian politics have increasingly moved from formal to informal venues is among the volume's central themes,” she observed. “Implicit — although the authors don't make this point directly — is a kind of critique… that speaks to the dominance in political science of scholarship on formal autocratic institutions [and]… the literature on competitive autocracies.
“As much as this emphasis on formal institutions is shed,” she concluded, “[a great deal] of work remains to be done on informal institutions and the micro-processes that undergird them.”
*For more information about the team, see Russian Political Insight.
**Russian parliamentary and presidential elections were held in December 2011 and March 2012, respectively.
This article was originally published June 6, 2018. It was updated in a slightly shorter form on June 8.