On October 18, 2005, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting on “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy” with speaker Nikolay Petrov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Carnegie Senior Associate Michael McFaul chaired the meeting. Petrov’s remarks are summarized below.
President Vladimir Putin’s system is really a mixture of authoritarianism and managed democracy. In recent years it has suffered a series of crises: first the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, then Nazran, Grozny, Beslan, the Ukrainian election, and the failed reform of social benefits. Putin finally took advantage of a brief calm to hold his televised question and answer session with the nation, but soon afterward violence broke out in Nalchik. These incidents evince a systemic disease. But what is the nature of this system?
Putin has replaced the institutions outlined in the constitution with those of his own design. The government has given way to the Security Council, the center of power around [Minister of Economic Development and Trade] Gref, and the presidency. The Federation Council has given way to the State Council, and now the Duma is giving way to the Public Chamber. This system is more complex than often believed.
Managed democracy controls society while providing the appearance of democracy. Its main characteristics are as follows:
1. A strong presidency and weak institutions
2. State control of the media
3. Control over elections allows elites to legitimize their decisions
4. Visible short-term effectiveness and long-term inefficiency
The result is an “unstable stability” based on the president’s personality. He is actually a hostage of the system.
This system is highly dysfunctional, with poor information flows. Everything beneath the president is vertically integrated, but there are no horizontal connections. Smart guys make bad decisions and nobody has the big picture. Meanwhile the gap between personal, corporate, and systemic interests is growing, so it’s hard to make different elements of the system act in concert. Obedience is the first measure of performance and that creates perverse incentives. For example, a regional governor has an incentive to obey the center, but no incentive to make his region succeed.
As for the electoral system, it’s not that bad—it’s worse. The center can legally exclude any candidate. A healthier Russian democracy will not emerge without decentralization and federalism. For now, the lack of meaningful elections has seriously weakened civil society.
Frightened by the role of youth in the Ukrainian election, the Kremlin has been trying to keep youth out of politics. Different clans within the Kremlin have created their own youth branches in case of sudden need, as in a future election. In the past year we have seen a Nashi protest bring 60 thousand youths to Moscow at a cost of nearly a million dollars.
Recent events have not much altered the overall picture. Dmitri Kozak, Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus, has pushed for re-decentralization and municipal reform, but these measures have been postponed indefinitely. The Public Chamber is coming to resemble the old Supreme Soviet, perfectly balanced by gender, ethnicity, etc. The first cohort of members comprises largely athletes and unknowns. Such a body will not be an effective bridge between society and the state.
In conclusion, the system is bad, not only for democracy, but for effectiveness. Like a mule, it is an unnatural hybrid incapable of reproducing itself. Its inefficiency means the system needs a huge, ever-expanding overseeing bloc. The biggest threat to the existing order comes from the North Caucasus. The chaos there reveals the state’s short time horizon: nobody is interested in a long-term strategy. Managed democracy is bad not only for society, but also in the long term for the political class. The elite can survive only if it changes the system and introduces more democracy.
Q: What about the demos? How is it reacting?
Petrov: During the protest over social benefit reform, people quickly created horizontal networks and elected representatives, usually from civil society. The Kremlin had to make a huge and continuing investment to quell the protest. This shows the influence of the Dutch Disease. The strain will only grow, and the prospects for the demos are good.
Q: How do you find out what’s happening in Russia?
Petrov: One can’t rely on any single source. The Carnegie Moscow Center has a network of experts in the regions. Kommersant provides good detail on most foreign and domestic issues. For really big issues one must also examine regional media. The “popular referendum” currently being run by leftist parties will gather a lot of important information.
Q: The private sector is booming. But is this regime causing more graft and corruption?
Petrov: The oligarchs are like appointed owners. There’s something similar with the media business in the regions. This state-business mix is retarding the growth of a middle class. The corruption problem is very serious. Small and medium businesses are not independent players, so there’s no money for civil society.
Q: Judges acknowledge political pressure, but some try to assert their independence. What do you think of the judiciary?
Petrov: In most cases the courts are controlled by the center. The Kozak reform made some technical improvements, but the principle remains the same and decisions are still political.
Q: Who would be the best Russian to debate you? What would they say? Could we have a new Putin?
Petrov: If oil prices go up, we could have a new Putin. If not, the only way the system can survive is to change. There are many intelligent guys, like Vyacheslav Nikonov and Dmitri Kozak. But the problem isn’t the brains, it’s the system.
Q: You’ve shown a very isolated system. Do you see Russia as unusually isolated compared to the period from 1980-2000?
Petrov: Yes, because of high oil prices. Any president wants to expand his power. But in Russia institutions were too weak, and democratic traditions too young, to oppose the president. To some degree the West could stand in for these democratic checks on presidential power, but oil has reduced its influence.
Summary prepared by Matthew Gibson, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.