Putin’s Russia: 21st-Century Sultanate

Putin remains in a position of significant power. His continued presence within the government ensures the ongoing influence of his administration’s policies and ideology, or Putinism—a new authoritarianism that provides the foundation for a corporatist state, “Russia, Inc.”

During Putin’s reign, the state systematically recovered ownership, or at least firm control, of the country’s politics and the key sectors of the economy, creating a regime that closely corresponds to the traditional definitions of authoritarianism, as described by the political scientist Samuel Huntington.

In addition to the characteristics of classic authoritarianism, Putinism has a number of other distinct features that bear a remarkable similarity to common components of fascism. Under Putin, the government became one of personal power, popularity, and legitimacy. Renewed senses of nationalism and nostalgia have also sprung up under Putinism.

Perhaps an even stronger legacy of Putinism is the sultanistic corporatism built on the foundation of his authoritarianism. The result is what scholar Nicolas Gvosdev has called “Kremlin, Inc.” As the Carnegie Endowment’s Dmitri Trenin puts it: “Russia is ruled by people who largely own it.”

According to a Russian business daily, in the beginning of this year, “political and personal allies” of the president headed the boards of companies that together accounted for 40 percent of Russia’s economy. Putin’s friends, former colleagues, or aides control most of the “state corporations” and ostensibly private companies majority-owned by the state.

Max Weber called authoritarian regimes distinguished by patronage, nepotism, and cronyism “sultanistic.” In the Russian version, sultanism is distinguished by its almost caste-like character: nearly all of the top officers (and reputed owners) of “Russia, Inc.” began their careers, like Putin, in the mid-1970s to early 1980s in the KGB domestic or foreign intelligence.

Entry into the Putinist elite is virtually restricted to those with a past in the security and intelligence services, and the new “oligarchs” were said by a prominent Russian observer to be “bound” in secrecy, “the total cover-up” being a sine qua non for all those “admitted to government posts.”

The owners of Russia’s largest firms and enterprises seem to have been divided into the “useful” (nuzhnye) –that is, those deemed politically loyal and willing to “share”– and the “useless” (nenuzhnye), those who are looked at with suspicion.

The former are allowed to prosper and expand, while many of the latter live under various degrees of pressure to sell at least some of their assets to the state or the “useful” tycoons. Last fall, an insider plausibly revealed the details of what he called the “velvet re-privatization,” in which the assets are “transferred” from the “useless” to the “useful.”

Putinism’s authoritarianism and sultanistic corporatism have destroyed the legitimacy of all key political and social institutions in Russia; the regime’s foundation lies only in its claims to economic growth and increased standards of living.

Should the economy –which has achieved the impressive average growth rate of nearly 7 percent in the past 10 years– begin to falter, so too would the legitimacy of the Putin and Medvedev regimes. The decrease in oil production, the global food crisis, and high inflation in Russia, make Russia’s economic and political situation look less stable than the Kremlin would like.

In the short term, Putinism creates a strong, unchallenged political entity and offers both economic and political stability for Russia; it also represents a proud, truculent face to the world. Yet in the long term, its policies will bring economic stagnation, political destabilization, and the deterioration of external relations.

As a student of Marxist “dialectical materialism,” Putin must be aware of this evolution, yet as a successful authoritarian ruler, he will doubtless ignore it, and Medvedev seems content to follow blithely in Putin’s footsteps.

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21st-Century Sultanate
Leon Aron, 14.11.2008

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