The Russian mirror has broken

Putin has diverted Russia's course from modernisation to revisionism in order to shore up the power of a small elite.

Over the last decade, democratic Europe constructed an image of Russia as a country undergoing a process of political, economic, and social modernisation that was so intense as to be irreversible. Economic development was supposed to create a middle class in which, as in many other places in post-Cold War Europe, individuals would thrive in an environment of freedom, rights, and shared prosperity. As in democratic societies, the machinery of the state, so ubiquitous in the history of Russia, would see its role diminished in favour of citizens, businesses, and consumers, who would finally be the masters of their future. Some even dreamed that a close framework of relations between Russia and the European Union would mean that Moscow and Brussels would share “everything but institutions”, in the formula popularised in 2002 by the then president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi.

In retrospect, it might seem that this analysis confused dreams with reality. But in fact, this course of events was extremely plausible. President Dmitry Medvedev appeared determined to modernise the country, which involved changing the growth model from one based on the extraction and export of raw materials to a society open to knowledge and innovation. And it seemed that he planned to do so with the assistance of strategic partners. As a consequence, Germany, with its incredible export and investment capacity, and the rest of Western Europe, eager to make space for Russia in institutions like the G-7, would gradually include Russia in the multilateral political and economic system.

Gorbachev predicted that Putin’s re-election would deepen the impasse into which the process of economic modernisation had fallen.

Although many did not realise it at the time, this Russian mirror broke in September 2009 when Vladimir Putin, who had already completed two terms as president, announced his intention to run for presidency in the 2012 elections. Mikhail Gorbachev himself, who in the past had praised Putin as a moderniser, publicly expressed concern about this turn in Russian politics and called on Putin to reconsider his decision. Prophetically, Gorbachev predicted that Putin’s re-election would deepen the impasse into which the process of economic modernisation had fallen and would mean the loss of five crucial years. A portrait depicting Putin in 2025, older and in a military uniform covered with medals, spread like wildfire through the blogosphere and the Russian social networks and ended up as the cover of Courrier International under the title “Back in the USSR”. Putin was transfigured into Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1964 and 1982, who is strongly identified with the stagnation and paralysis that led to the collapse of the USSR.

It has not taken five years to see that Gorbachev’s concerns were in the right vein. Putin’s election in 2012 was harshly contested by part of the Russian population, which although numerically a minority, represented the embryo of the modern and open Russia that all hoped to see. Since then, Putin has applied himself to systematically shattering that mirror and blocking any prospect of modernisation. Instead of opening up the economy and seeking to create an independent enterprise class, he has concentrated political, economic, and media power in the hands of a small elite of friends, colleagues, and former KGB associates. Following Acemoglu and Robinson’s classic work, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,the Russian case fits perfectly with the model of “extractive elites”. These elites block political and economic progress in the country in favour of a cause that is increasingly less to do with ideology but more and more motivated by personal concerns: in the current economic structure, they know that the country’s modernisation would involve their ousting.

Despite what some Russian thinkers and ideologues would like us to think, these ex-KGB leaders and corrupt oligarchs have not embraced orthodox religion and pan-Russian nationalism because of a desire to come to terms with the unfathomable mysteries of the Russian soul and civilisation. What they are interested in is ideological manipulation to ensure their own survival. The Putin regime, through an unparalleled concentration of economic and media power, has managed a feat that will forever be remembered in the history of authoritarianism. It has achieved democratic and popular legitimacy – because yes, Putin is very popular – for an extractive oligarchy that owes its existence to the overlapping of intense political authoritarianism, extreme social inequality, and undue concentration of wealth.

Gradually, Russia has been converted into a petrostate, a state entity that has not only constructed its power on raw materials but that because of that base can ignore its society’s demands for political, economic, and social modernisation. The “resource curse” in Russia has created a unique hybrid: something halfway between Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where oil and gas income is used to build the social support that the regime needs to maintain a democratic façade, and a petrol monarchy that anchors its legitimacy in a rancid nationalism rooted in religion, culture, and mythical historic battles. Putin has become obsessed with identity and nation-building, from the manipulation of the media to harass independent groups in civil society and social movements (including homosexuals) through to the rejection of foreign influence and ideas and the re-vindication of both Tsarism and the Soviet era.

To understand Putin, one must understand how a KGB agent thinks.

Political scientist Ivan Krastev argues that to understand Putin, one must understand how a KGB agent thinks. The job of the KGB man, unlike that of a member of the military or a Communist Party apparatchik, is not to create hierarchical structures and keep them under control, but to infiltrate and capture them while maintaining the appearance of normal operation. To succeed in this task, he must understand people’s key motivations and aspirations. Here, Putin has demonstrated his genius: those who wanted money have been well paid, and those who longed for identity have had their lost self esteem restored. That old KGB operative who confesses he always wanted to be a secret agent has conducted a brilliant operation. Russia has been transformed into a double agent which, while appearing to serve the Russians, allows these KGB ex-agents to maintain power and to control the apparatus of the state as well as its economic and media levers.

If Gorbachev’s prediction can be criticised for anything, it is that his vision fell short. Putin’s administration of the Russian state has not been as characterless and boring as Brezhnev’s. As we have seen in recent months, he has striven to construct an irredentist and revisionist Russia which has created a huge security problem for its European neighbours. He sees his neighbours as vassals who must be forced to collaborate in creating a sphere of influence that will ensure the viability of an independent Russia distinct from the West. For this reason, Putin has linked Russia’s fate to Ukraine and now cannot afford to lose the centrepiece in his Eurasian project. Thus, he is stuck in an alley in which he can neither advance nor retreat. If he goes forward, he will enter into an economic confrontation with the West which would debilitate his petrostate, impoverishing the oligarchs and inflaming public opinion. If he retreats and abandons his minions in Eastern Ukraine, he will be criticised for cowardice in selling the Russian soul and identity in exchange for a few coins. He will do what he will do. But one thing is clear: a leader who has built his entire political career on the desire to avenge the humiliations suffered by Russia will not allow himself to be humiliated in the end. 

Translated by Carla J. Hobbs. An earlier version was commissioned and published by EL PAÍS in Spain.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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