Putinism: an ideology?

On February 12 2013, Anne Applebaum addressed a capacity crowd at the LSE on the topic of “Putinism – The Ideology.” Andrew White summarises her critique.

According to Anne Applebaum, the distinct form of government adopted by Russia in the new Millenium is a direct result of the personality and beliefs of Vladimir Putin himself.

Putin’s system of beliefs is informed by two distinct factors: his interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union and his “coming of age” in the KGB under Yuri Andropov. Putin has long believed that the end of the USSR heralded not liberalisation, but economic collapse. Communism was stable and safe, while experiments with democracy and the market were a failure. The bipolar division of power was mutually reinforcing, American unilateralism dangerous. In addition, Applebaum asserted that Putin’s veneration of Andropov informs his belief that the Russian state must allow no degree of uncertainty (i.e. competitive elections), such as rocked Eastern Europe in 1989.

Putin’s anxiety about losing control has developed into the modus operandi of the Russian government. In particular, the management of elections, the press and opposition movements provide examples of Putinism at work. While the concept of managed elections is not something particularly unique, Applebaum argued that the depth to which the manipulation goes is distinctive in Russia. While the semblance of competition exists in Russian elections, no accidental candidates arise. Putinism provides for the creation and selection of palatable opposition candidates who pose no real threat to the establishment.

Moreover, Applebaum asserted that while the press is theoretically free, Putinism has imposed strict limits on the Fourth Estate that prevent it from serving its purpose in a liberal democracy. While Putinism largely tolerates small-scale independent journalism, any growth is heavily discouraged. However, unlike Putin’s Soviet predecessors, the system uses targeted violence against popular dissidents to serve as a warning to others.

However, if Putin is popular enough and possesses the apparatus to assume complete control over Russian politics and society, why bother with the fiction of democracy at all? In tracing Putin’s personal life, Applebaum pointed to his time as a KGB Lieutenant Colonel in Dresden, where he witnessed first hand the provocative power of democratic ideas. By coopting the image of democracy, Putinism insulates the state against democratic pressures and allows Putin to maintain legitimacy both at home and abroad. As Applebaum also pointed out, showmanship and appearance are very important to Putin on a personal level.

Applebaum concluded her lecture by arguing that the West has little hope of influencing the course of Russian domestic politics. Indeed, Russia sometimes appears to have a stronger normative pull that the West; exporting its model through state owned-energy companies and co-opting politicians in neighbouring states (to say nothing of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose perceived closeness to Putin while in office allegedly led to seats on the boards of Gazprom and TNK subsidiaries).

However, Russian membership of the G8, action to prevent Russian investment in Western energy enterprises and criticism of Putin’s attempt to marginalise NGOs operating in Russia would act as constraints while alternative ideologies continue to circulate and consolidate. The next generation would be different, Applebaum predicted. Not necessarily liberal, but not Putinist, either.

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Further background on the lecture can be read at Crossing the Baltic. Anne Applebaum’s lecture can be heard or downloaded here.


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