From Republic.ru, Feb. 11, 2021, complete text:
[Opposition politician] Aleksei Navalny’s return to Russia served as a catalyst for trends that emerged long ago but that progressed at a moderate rate. This is very similar to the coronavirus pandemic: Inequality in global capitalism emerged long ago, but [the pandemic] made it impossible to continue to ignore it. The entire Navalny affair, from the assassination attempt to his arrest [see, respectively, Vol. 72, No. 34‑35, pp. 13‑16, and Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 3-6], makes it impossible for society to continue ignoring the nascent changes.
More specifically, the Navalny case accelerated a process that started last year with January’s constitutional reform [announcement; see Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 3‑8]. The purpose of this process is to mark the transition from one phase in the development of the [Russian President] Vladimir Putin regime to the next. In this case, we are talking about transitioning from an “imitation democracy” to a “neototalitarian dictatorship” – a cycle that took approximately a year and a half to complete, beginning in July 2019 with the repression of the Moscow [City Duma] protests and culminating in the suppression of protests across Russia in February 2021 [see respectively, Vol. 71, No. 30, pp. 7‑11, and Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 7‑10].
When I say phase transition, I mean a quantum leap for the Putin regime that affects all of its main parameters. Each leap takes [this process] to a fundamentally new stage of its internal evolution, where it pauses for a while, creating a plateau of stability that lasts several years. This stability plateau can be described as the regime’s development phase. In my opinion, since its inception, the Putin regime has undergone three phase transitions, so at this point, it is in its fourth phase, which I consider to be the last relatively stable one.
First phase transition.
By first phase transition, I am referring to events between late 2003 and early 2007, when we saw a phase shift from “inertial democracy” that more or less adhered to the main parameters of the political system created by Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, to “sovereign democracy.” Vladislav Surkov [first deputy chief of the Russian presidential administration, 1999-2011 – Trans.] is believed to be the architect of the latter, but it has many initiators.
The external trigger of this transition was the first [2004-2005] Independence Square revolution in Ukraine, which the Kremlin and a significant part of the [Russian] elite saw as the West’s attempt to undermine Russia’s vital and “natural” rights in the post-Soviet space. Domestically, this transition started with the arrest of [Yukos CEO] Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Yukos case. From an ideological standpoint, this was a transition to a limited democracy, with “sovereignty” as the modifier.
In politics, this brought the first set of significant constitutional counterreforms (abolishing [direct] gubernatorial elections [see Vol. 56, No. 42, p. 10] and so on). In economics, this set a course for latent nationalization via the redistribution of assets in favor of so-called trusted beneficiaries – i.e., people with personal ties to Putin. In foreign policy, we saw points of divergence with the West, which had its status shift from that of main partner to main competitor.
This system remained fairly stable for about five years, until it started experiencing serious problems during the latter half of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. The years of the reverse power transition from Medvedev [back] to Putin became a stress test [for this system] and laid the groundwork for the next transition.
Second phase transition.
The second phase transition refers to events of late 2013 and the start of the Ukrainian war, and 2016 (i.e., the first “postwar” State Duma elections). Clearly, the trigger for this phase transition was the second [2013-2014] Independence Square revolution and Ukraine’s movement toward the European Union, which the Kremlin and the ruling Russian elite saw as the West’s declaration of war. [Russia] declared a hybrid war in response, with the theater of operations first opening in the Crimea, then eastern Ukraine and Syria, followed by practically all of Africa and a part of Latin America.
In domestic policy, the new (third) phase was marked by all but a rejection of democratic values and institutions, with them [nevertheless] retaining their de facto status. This is actually why I consider this a transition from a “sovereign” (limited) democracy to an “imitation” (completely fictitious) one. The beginning of the regime’s third phase was marked by the start of open political repressions, which were no longer disguised by general charges [against dissenters] (even though that practice remained in use).
It would be fair to refer to this as the #KrymNash [popular hashtag that means “the Crimea is ours” – Trans.] phase. Stability during this period, which lasted all the way until the events of mid-summer 2019 in Moscow (when protests erupted over the barring of independent candidates from Moscow City Duma elections), was based on the post-Crimean consensus, which was the foundation of Russia’s “Versailles syndrome.” However, toward the end of this phase, the consensus started to disappear, which was a major factor that triggered the next phase transition.
Third phase transition.
The third phase transition refers to the entire period between the July 2019 protests in Moscow, which marked the growth of public activism in Russia, and the protests of early 2021, triggered by the arrest of Aleksei Navalny following his return to Russia. In fact, suppression [of those protests] served as the regime’s transition to a qualitatively new state. This marks a transition from the previous model of an “imitation democracy” to a dictatorship, which is more natural for the regime and lacks any of the previous democratic window dressing.
In the fourth phase, the regime will move from targeted repressions to mass ones, and will openly abandon law as an instrument of social order. It will also conclusively abandon democracy as a value. This period will be marked by the desire to isolate as much as possible from any external influences on the system, which are viewed strictly as destructive. In this sense, the West is turning into a strategic adversary with which the regime will enter into full confrontation, repeating the general outlines of the cold war. In the economy, we will see attempts to combine a Soviet planned economy with mafia-esque rugged capitalism.
Unlike forecasts predicting a swift and horrible crash, the Putin regime may remain fairly stable for a long time in the fourth phase. After all, it is a plateau of sorts that [the regime] can cling to. In the previous phases, stability lasted about five to six years, and I see no reason why this phase should be any different. Of course, historic coincidences happen, and a “political Chernobyl” may significantly curtail this phase. For instance, a tragic chain of events such as the failed Belarussian revolution1/failed Navalny assassination/failure to prevent his return to Russia and subsequent arrest have already almost halved the usual transition time from 30-36 months to 18 months.
1[Reference to protests that followed allegations of widespread falsifications in the August 2020 Belarussian presidential election; see, for instance, Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 3‑7, and No. 34‑35, pp. 3‑6. – Trans.]
Fourth phase transition.
The start of the next phase transition, in my opinion, will happen somewhere between 2024 and 2027, which makes sense in all respects – [we will see] elections in the US and Great Britain, a difficult transition at home [i.e., the end of Putin’s current term in office – Trans.], and the peak of the [coronavirus] pandemic’s economic and political fallout.
The problem is that most likely, this will mark the last phase transition and the regime’s final evolution to its terminal phase – agony and disintegration. The phase we’re witnessing now is actually the most natural state for the regime, in which is it openly demonstrating its violent nature. During all previous evolutionary stages, the regime sought the next plateau of stability, carefully jettisoning its “democratic ballast.” But now, there is nothing left to jettison. All it can do is continue inflating this bubble until it bursts, bringing [the regime] down.
In the next, terminal phase, the transition to which is all but inevitable, the risk of military incursions will rise dramatically, since the regime will attempt to use them to compensate for its fall from its peak. The most likely scenario is a military response to resumed revolutionary processes in Belarus. However, we may also see attempts to officially annex eastern Ukraine, or orchestrate events similar to the ones in Ukraine in Kazakhstan. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Africa and the Middle East. The consequences of any of the above misadventures (which the regime will reach for as part of attempts at self-preservation) will be the exact opposite of the Crimean events: They will spell the beginning of the end. While the current phase is not the regime’s twilight, it’s not far off.