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The Rise of Putinism

The rule of Vladimir Putin follows in this authoritarian legacy. It has been marked simultaneously by optimistic appeals of national renewal and deep-seated paranoia about foes, both foreign and domestic, imperiling the country. More so, his increasingly iron-fisted and repressive regime has, akin to the Chinese example discussed above, continued to commit to economic marketization. While much of his rhetoric, at times, can speak to feelings of capitalist dismay experienced by many within the country, his actions and populism are aimed not at moving Russia in a different economic direction but rather combining a strong political state with a relatively regulated market society.

The historical backdrop of Putin’s rise to power is crucial, in this respect. The decade following the demise of the USSR represented a difficult transition, to say the very least. It was characterized by dramatic rises in inequality (Ravallion and Lokshin, 2000), declining social mobility (Gerber and Hout, 2004), falling economic growth and precarious employment (S. Clarke, 1998) to match its substantive gains in liberal political freedom. For this reason, the era is commonly referred to as a time of “gangster capitalism” in which anarchy reigned and rival oligarchs fought, with often violent results, to accumulate as much wealth and influence as they could (Handelman, 1995; Klebnikov, 2000).

The seeming disintegration of the nation into chaos sparked anger and insecurity throughout the country. The fall of the Soviet Union had been fueled by widespread hope that a new system would emerge delivering greater freedom and fairer rule of law. Instead, this creaking totalitarian regime was replaced by growing violence, elitism and the inability of the elected government to provide either economic security for its citizens or restore social order. Further, the previous material “safety net” and cultural benefits offered by Soviet regime - such as free education and healthcare as well as secure employment - were now firmly seen as a thing of the past, lost relics from a bygone era where political liberty may have been in short supply but the state still took care of its people.

Amidst this volatile and anxious environment, Putin was appointed as Prime Minister in 1999 and then ascended to the presidency for the first time in 2000. His background gave pause to many within the country, as he was a former member of the KGB. Yet for others, it signaled the possibilities for a “return to normalcy” - the ascendancy of a strong leader who could properly set things to right. Politically, Putin initially appeared to tread a middle ground ideologically between those who called for complete liberalization and a rising populist movement seeking to go back to the old ways of Leninist style communism (Rice-Oxley and Cross, 2012).

His first act reflected this perceived centrism, as he made a deal with the oligarchs that they would be left to their economic devices as long as they paid their taxes and drastically reduced their violence. However, he soon began directly taking on these powerful economic figures, doing so officially in the name of pursuing justice, regardless of wealth or status. Unofficially, however, there appeared a more fundamental but no less psychologically resonant reason for attacking the oligarchs - safeguarding the country from the threat of foreign influence, which the Russian corporate leaders were exacerbating by directly negotiating and partnering with Western firms (Goldman, 2004).

Regardless, of its normative or economic effects, these measures created the foundations for Putin to regularize and extend his authoritarianism. As Sakwa (2008: 879) notes:

Arriving into the presidency in 2000 Putin declared his goal as the “dictatorship of law”, and indeed this principle was exercised in the attempt to overcome the legal fragmentation of the country in the federal system; but when it came to pursuing regime goals, it appeared more often than not that the system ruled by law rather than ensuring the rule of law.

Specifically, he progressively deployed global discourses of the “War on Terror” to legitimate the repression of internal enemies (Shuster, 2010). Moreover, he has done so while maintaining in principle - and to some degree practice - the country’s commitments to continued market reforms. Indeed, while he has nationalized some industries and been seen by many as “conservative” in the pace in which he has implemented marketization, he nonetheless even as late as 2012 publicly declared that “state capitalism is not our goal” (Busvine, 2012).

This reversion to authoritarian capitalism - even as it maintains the edifice of representative democracy - has been described as “Putinism” (see Hill and Cappelli, 2013). According to Zakaria (2014):

The crucial elements of Putinism are nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media. They are all, in some way or another, different from and hostile to, modern Western values of individual rights, tolerance, cosmopolitanism and internationalism. It would be a mistake to believe that Putin’s ideology created his popularity - he was popular before - but it sustains his popularity.

To this effect, van Herpern (2013: 8) refers to Putinism as a type of “fascism lite,” which “shares with ‘classical’ fascism its ultra nationalism and its ideas of national rebirth and imperialist revision” but with a distinctly modern twenty-first century twist. In particular, “it combines internal repression with the adoption of the advanced global capitalist economy.”

Putinism, thus, conforms to and borrows from its Tsarist and Soviet predecessors. It justifies the strong arm of the state through reference to foreign enemies and the need to maintain a strong Russia at all costs. It has, further, quite successfully played on “traditional Russian values,” extolling this social conservatism to expand the repressive scope of the state’s power and distracting attention away from the continuing structural problems of marketization. In this respect, it reflects not only the country’s autocratic and totalitarian past but also its authoritarian capitalist present.

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