From, Dec. 26, 2020, complete text:

The heightened attention being paid to the transformation of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime lately, following the “zeroing out” [of the president’s term limit clock; see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7 – Trans.], obscures the fact that the present political system has already been repeatedly revamped, and drastically so. After all, the system does not consist of Putin alone, and the way it works depends not so much on the number of presidential terms served by Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] in the Kremlin as on the mechanisms that preserve the regime. I believe there are four varieties of the Putin regime, each of them roughly corresponding to each presidential term.

Over the past two decades, changes have occurred along four axes. Let’s briefly outline them and then consider the matter in more detail. First is the “reform-stability” axis, which has to do with transformations. Second is the “partnership-confrontation” axis, which affects foreign policy. Third, the “voter manipulation-forcible suppression” axis concerns domestic policy. The fourth axis, which bears on domestic policy aimed not at the broad masses but at the elite, is “corruption-monopolization of rent.”

Creative corruption?

Putin’s first presidential term looked fairly good. There was no talk of stability at the time, since almost throughout the 1990s both the economy and people’s real incomes kept falling, so that kind of stability would hardly have made anyone happy. On the contrary, on the advice of [then-finance minister Aleksei] Kudrin, Putin stepped up transformations, and it has to be acknowledged that at least the tax reform at the time was a success. There was a lot of talk about reforms. Significant changes were planned in the state governance system in general, the pension system, the administrative system and some other areas.

There was practically no confrontation with the West. The Kremlin halfheartedly growled at the criticism of its policy in the North Caucasus, but at the time Putin greatly enjoyed attending international meetings and hoped for improvement. He most likely even cherished the hope of Russia joining NATO – and on his own terms.

There was practically no need to use force to suppress discontent (except in the North Caucasus). Living standards were improving due to economic growth, which in turn was driven by the devaluation of the ruble and a windfall of petrodollars. The broad masses were happy with that. Meanwhile, the narrow circles of intellectuals who demanded peace in Chechnya could freely express their views in the media, even though that had virtually no impact on the president’s positive approval ratings. There was active voter manipulation during Putin’s election campaign in the fall and winter of 1999-2000, but subsequently the Russian people felt such deep satisfaction with Putin’s regime that there was not really any need for brainwashing at all.

The elite were even more deeply satisfied than the broad masses. Corruption became a major method of incentivizing bureaucrats and cultivating their personal loyalty to Putin’s regime. Virtually nothing was done to fight [corruption]. The Kremlin realized that it would be difficult for the regime to hold on if its servants had nothing to lose but the chains that bound them to their desks. So the “servants” got rich quickly, became masters and threw all their efforts into preserving the status quo for as long as possible. At the same time, many intellectuals said that corruption was even useful, since it turned the cogs of the state mechanism that furthered economic development.

Forced friendship.

During the second presidential term. the picture began to change – not so much at Putin’s bidding as under the impact of objective circumstances. As soon as it became clear that the regime’s legitimacy was ensured by the leader’s charisma and a gushing oil pipeline, transformations came to a stop. The “reform-stability” axis shifted abruptly. It became clear that if effectively implemented, reforms would work for the interests of future presidents, whereas at that moment they would more likely destabilize the situation and hurt Putin.

Partnership with Western countries did not bring the Kremlin the benefits it expected, so it tried to strengthen its position by taking advantage of discord among its foreign “partners.” The Iraq war offered an opportunity to play the “divide and conquer” game. Although the views of Washington and London on that war significantly differed from those of Paris and Berlin, [the West] did not end up divided. A disappointed Putin switched gears with a direct verbal attack against Western countries in his famous Munich speech [in 2007; see Vol. 59, No. 7, pp. 1‑4]. A phenomenon sometimes called “forced friendship” emerged: Putin tried to show that the West was better off having him as a friend than an enemy. In the end, the tactic of making friends from a position of strength did not work, and partnership turned into confrontation.

But in domestic politics, on the other hand, everything remained unchanged. The higher the oil prices, the more kicks corrupt officials got from corruption – and exhortations from [then-Federal Narcotics Service chief] Gen. [Viktor] Cherkesov for “warriors” [in Russian security agencies] not to turn into “merchants” had no impact whatsoever. Voters were manipulated every which way. A mysterious “Putin plan” took shape. To this day, no one knows what it was all about, but that lack of knowledge did not prevent ordinary Russians from voting for United Russia, and for [then-prime minister] Dmitry Medvedev as Putin’s presidential successor.

So, the regime’s metamorphosis during Putin’s second term consisted of the following: The doves on Smolensk Square [i.e., at the Russian Foreign Ministry] turned into hawks; the vultures in civil service grew so fat that they lost all vigilance; and the stormy petrels calling for reform started wondering whether it was time to fly south.

Hawks vs. vultures.

During the four years that Medvedev hesitantly tried to entice the country with the freedom that is “better than lack of freedom,” the circles of serious-minded people were hatching a truly radical transformation of the Putin regime. It stemmed from the prolonged stagnation that the [Russian] economy sank into after 2008, which led to the stagnation (or even decline) of people’s real incomes. A poor country cannot be run the same way a rich country can, so as soon as the public lost their illusions that the Putin regime would make society prosperous, the manipulative governance system was badly shaken. The “Bolotnaya case” [crackdown on protesters who marched on Bolotnaya Square to decry election fraud; see, for example, Vol. 64, No. 18‑19, pp. 7‑9 – Trans.] and pressure on independent media could have had far-reaching consequences, since the Kremlin did not want to allow new protests on a scale comparable to those that took place during the hot winter of 2011-2012.

But there was no need for a large-scale use of force at the time, because the manipulative system got a new lease on life. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea inspired masses of people to such an extent that in spring 2014, society as a whole became loyal again. The regime held on by pure manipulation, since people derived no personal benefit from Putin’s rule. And yet this manipulative maneuver worked for four more years.

By contrast, the “corruption-monopolization of rent” axis underwent major changes. Defense, security and law-enforcement officials were given carte blanche to hunt the fat vultures and to establish their own control over the shadow financial sector. This [change], too, stemmed from problems in the economic system. The scale of corruption had grown too big for the stagnant economy, so the loyalty of officials was no longer enough to offset the expenses incurred by the steadily growing number of bribe-takers.

The danger arose that [bureaucrats] would start stealing far more than [the country] produced, so the Kremlin tried to restrict rent-collection rights to only people at the highest state level and their business partners. As for governors, ministers, Army generals and security service colonels, they could easily end up behind bars if they took more than befit their rank. And many of them were doing so until 2012, because practically any rank entitled its holders to grab as much rent as they could swallow.

A coercive regime vs. a manipulative regime.

This was the political baggage we were carrying when the term limit was reset. Putin had to do something like that to remain in power. The abandonment of reforms during his “second regime” [i.e., after Medvedev’s presidency – Trans.] doomed the economy to stagnation following the collapse of oil prices, and Putin cannot get away from that stagnation: He will not succeed in regaining electoral support by increasing people’s real incomes. The transition from partnership to confrontation, along with Operation Krymnash [reference to a pro-Kremlin hashtag that means “the Crimea is ours” – Trans.], doomed Putin to sanctions that have proved impossible to lift. Even worse, foreign investors now view our economy as a trouble spot that they should steer clear of. So no success can be expected here, either. As for the monopolization of rent, along with the crackdown on the bureaucratic class, it is gradually chipping away at the administrative base that has been somehow holding up the Putin regime. Sooner or later, the state machine will completely give up, since working for the master entails fewer and fewer benefits, but more and more risks.

The act of “zeroing out” essentially marks a shift from voter manipulation to outright forceful suppression. Right now, very few people realize that by voting for the constitutional amendments, people voted in Putin as president for life. The only people who figured it out were keen political observers, who are in the minority here [in Russia]. But in 2024, the real meaning of what the Kremlin pushed through in 2020 will become obvious to all. By that time, incidentally, discontent with the income levels and economic development will have become even greater. Putin will be well past 70 and will have lost the last vestiges of his charisma. By then it will be hard even to create the illusion of any fairness in the ballot ritual, which has long had nothing to do with genuine elections. So the only thing left in Putin’s arsenal will be the use of force to suppress people who disagree with the lifetime rule of a leader they are sick and tired of.

What happened in Belarus this past summer [i.e., protests against reelection of Aleksandr Lukashenko as president; see Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 3‑7 – Trans.] shows what may happen in Russia in spring 2024. Not literally, of course. Putin’s enforcement capability is greater than Lukashenko’s. Suppression may be harsher, or perhaps even unnecessary on a wide scale, because the Russian public will realize the futility of protests. But in any case, the Putin regime will be a tough one, based on force, not the manipulative one that has existed until now.

It will be a regime that has abandoned all reforms but failed to preserve even stability. It will be a regime that has bickered with all potentially useful partners and refrained from confrontation only with a rising China, which will not consider a weakening Russia an equal partner. It will be a regime where most wealth is concentrated at the very top of the power pyramid, and the people holding that wealth stay in power by using force or threatening to do so. Incidentally, they will not need Putin very much to preserve the regime, since an aging leader who has lost his charisma no longer fulfills any useful functions in the power maintenance mechanism.

Granted, Putin will most likely remain at the apex of the pyramid for quite a long time after 2024. How long? That is not a political question, but rather a medical one. In any case, the regime will sooner or later be left without Putin. The question is: Who will need such an authoritarian regime in, let’s say, 2042 – and why? Who will benefit from preserving it, except for a narrow circle of defense, security and law-enforcement officials? Will that regime be any use to an impoverished population; to a bureaucracy suppressed by security clans; or to businesses, which will have far fewer ways to get rich and significantly more obligations to share their wealth with those with a gun in their hands?