Can autocratic governments that incorporate elements of democracy provide good governance? The authors approach this question with an inductive study of Russia, which is widely regarded as a leading hybrid regime and an innovator in the field. They argue that for most of the past decade, and especially during Vladimir Putin’s second term as president, Russia has been characterized by a hybrid regime that strongly resembles those in many other Eurasian states, as well as Venezuela and Iran. This type of regime combines a high degree of state centralization with the gutting of democratic institutions, and their systematic replacement with substitutions that are intended to serve some of their positive functions without challenging the incumbent leaders’ hold on power.
The label chosen for this system, overmanaged democracy, reflects three central findings. First, this system has enabled Russia’s leaders to govern more by a non-participation pact with society than by outright repression—though some very repressive elements play a role. Second, the more centralized this system becomes, the more likely political outcomes are to diverge from social ideals, and the more vulnerable the regime becomes to shocks. The survival of the regime depends heavily on the personal reputation and skill of the top leaders, who must increasingly exercise manual control over the system. And third, political outcomes in a hybrid regime are closer to social ideals and the system is less vulnerable than would be the case in a regime that relies primarily on outright repression—allowing no political opposition to exist and creating no substitutions to serve any of the functions of democratic institutions. But the authors conclude that while overmanaged democracy may be stable in the short term, it will not last in the long term. In Russia’s case, the system is unlikely to survive Putin himself.