Russia cannot be a democracy since if it were, it would not exist.
It is a multi-ethnic empire almost sixty times the size of Italy. Its population equals that of all Italians and Germans together, three-quarters of which concentrated in its European provinces and with immense and almost uninhabited Siberia neighbouring the hyper-populated Chinese colossus. It can exist only if governed from the centre with an iron fist. The application of a Western-styled liberal-democratic system would mean sparking geopolitical disputes and a series of armed secessions in the shadows of ten thousand atomic bombs. This at least is the verdict issued by Russian history and, above all, it is the golden rule that Russian elites have absorbed with their mothers’ milk from the monarchy to Bolshevism to Putinism.
Furthermore, the people’s main inclination is to usually follow its Caesar or simply mistrust politics and politicians in every shape or form. Those who doubt this should refer to a recent survey carried out by the Levada Institute, according to which only 13% of Russians believe that Western-style democracy would serve their best interests, while 16% would prefer a Soviet “democracy” and 55% believe that the only acceptable form of democratic government is one corresponding to “specific Russian national traditions”. In other words, the current regime.
There are, of course, a number of brave people challenging history and Putin, trusting in democracy’s ultimate advent in Russia. Three years ago they managed for a few weeks to spark mass anti-regime protests in Moscow and in other cities. Now they have returned to the public stage for the funeral of Boris Nemtsov, the dissident mysteriously killed at the gates of the Kremlin. But they are swimming against the tide. In the atmosphere of patriotic mobilisations spurred by the war in Ukraine, four out of five Russians have expressed their approval of the president. The exchange Putin has proposed to his people - I guarantee security, stability and relative affluence and you leave politics to me - seems to still resist, in spite of or perhaps thanks to sanctions and the fall of the rouble. How long this will last, no one can say.
Deep down in the Russian imperial spirit, democracy is perceived as the West’s Trojan horse used to divide the homeland and return it to a new era of darkness, with the Chinese in Khabarovsk, NATO in Kaliningrad, Islamists as the masters of the Caucasus and spreading in Tatarstan and skinheads frolicking in St. Petersburg, as in the grim propaganda video broadcast by Putin’s supporters on the eve of the 2012 elections.
So what is this Putinism that has led the Russian Federation for the past fifteen years? Political analysts might perhaps resort to the word demokratura, a crasis of democracy and dictatorship, with which the clever essayist Predrag Matvejevic described regimes that are formally constitutional but in reality oligarchies. And yet Russia is a separate case.
Now more the ever, from a geopolitical perspective Moscow’s empire likes to present itself as an autonomous and sovereign state belonging to the “Christian world.” Initially, Putin’s Russia yearned to be acknowledged as an independent subject within the Western world – anti-Chinese and anti-Islamic. Since 2007, however, offended by America’s refusal to consider Russia an equal partner, Putin has led Russia to stand in opposition to the West. The war in Ukraine, in which the Russians see themselves as attacked by the Americans and the Europeans, in the end pushed him towards a tactical understanding with China and with two Islamic powers, Turkey and Iran. Yesterday’s historical enemies have become today’s (unreliable) allies.
As far as the political regime is concerned, citizens vote in Russia, but elections as “managed,” hence more or less moderately manipulated. The president’s political arm, United Russia, stands at the centre of the party system. The president is the heart of the decision-making mechanism according to the principle of “vertical power.” Orders are given at the Kremlin and then circulated all the way down to the lowest of local powers. The government and parliament have roles that are not comparable to their formal rank. Putin prefers to make decisions by organising small informal committees. As soon as he came to power, he established that on Mondays he would summon a number of ministers to the Kremlin, while serious issues would be discussed on Saturdays at his dacha with trusted advisors and the representatives of the “institutions responsible for security” — the army and heads of intelligence. The ukaz that determined the annexation of Crimea, for example, was issued by the president after consultations held only with the Secretary of the Security Council, Nikolaj Patrushev, a former chief of intelligence, and with Defence Minister Sergej Shojgu.
Putin was and remains a man of the secret services which he joined long ago in 1976. “A KGB agent is never a former agent,” he often says. His vision of the world is the viscerally security-based one that marks every intelligence officer. His few confidants nearly all have the same background. But the president is not an absolute dictator. He is the CEO chosen to protect the system by the Russian elites, especially members of the armed forces, but also a squadron of trusted oligarchs. It is to them that he answers. Putin is of course an extremely powerful leader, but a revocable one should the system require a new man. With war at the gates and a recession clouding the national economy’s prospects, one would not be surprised if one day in the not too distant future, one of his emissaries — perhaps a general – should invite him to say he is unwell for the supreme good of the country.
Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the men who helped him come to power as the chief executive officer of the Russian Federation, so as to save the country from disintegration, said, “It is impossible to say when this system will fall, but when it does fall, it will fall in one day. And the one to replace it will be a copy of this one.” And what about Russians of goodwill, just as patriotic as Putin, but yearning for freedom and the rule of law? Seen from the Kremlin, what applies to them is always the motto of the old Tsarist Finance Minister, Sergej Witte, “Our intellectuals complain that we do not have a government like that of England. They would do better to thank God that we do not have a government like that of China.”
Article published by La Repubblica on March 7th, 2015
(translation: Francesca Simmons)
(16 Marzo 2015)