Spin Dictatorship and Nature of Russian Political Regime [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Sergei Guriev, a renown political and economic analyst, Professor of Economics and Provost of Science Po, the co-author (together with Daniel Treisman) of Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, and the host of the podcast “Conversations with Sergei Guriev”. They talk about the Russian economy and society, the structure of power in Putin’s Russia, dictatorship and Putinism, the Russian war in Ukraine, and the future of Russia.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Why despite modernization of economy and society the Russian regime has tightened and moved closer to traditional dictatorship?

Sergei Guriev // Photo by AlexisLecomte

Sergei Guriev (SG): There are very few educated countries which have an open dictatorship like today’s Russian dictatorship. It is a very repressive regime – increasingly closed, autarkic, and very brutal. Russia is an upper middle-income country, which will probably become a higher-income country in the next couple of years.

Russia is a reasonably developed, urbanized, and educated country and yet, the regime has resorted to a brutal war and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Increased repression followed. It is a puzzle that can be explained by the mistake made by Vladimir Putin in 2022. Dictators make mistakes for a very simple reason – they do not get enough feedback. They surround themselves with ‘yes men’ – people who only give positive feedback to the dictator. There is no civil society or political opposition, so dictators have a biased view on society and politics.

Therefore, Putin thought that his army is strong, whereas the Ukrainian army is weak. He believed that the Ukrainian people like him and that the West is not united and that there is no resolve (which is probably an implication of what happened in Afghanistan half a year before his invasion), so he thought that he would quickly invade Ukraine change the government in Kyiv, and then come back to Russia with a bloodless victory (like he did in 2014). He would then remain a spin dictator, who rules through manipulation and not brutality. It did not work. Ukraine turned out to be stronger, the West turned out to be more united that Putin thought, and Putin’s own army turned out to be corrupt and weak.

Consequently, Putin had to think about what he can do to stay in power. He decided to go in the direction of a brutal dictatorship. In the first week after the beginning of the 2022 invasion, he closed down all independent media, blocked Facebook and Instagram, and introduced military censorship. The regime has changed dramatically just in a few days since the invasion because Putin understood that it is not 2014 anymore, but since he had to decide on something, he made this quick decision.

We still do not know why this happened. Maybe after spending a few years in isolation, Putin could have experienced a permanent change in the functioning of his brain. Neuroscientists believe that if you do not talk to people enough, neurons reconnect in a different way, so this is possible. He might now live in an alternative psychological and neuroscientific reality. Another possible explanation is that Putin received information that was biased – which would be a structural explanation.

LJ: No man governs alone, what is the current structure of power in the Putin’s Russia?

SG: Putin has built the elites himself. He surrounded himself with people he recruited in such a way, so that nobody could stand up to or criticize him. He did that because he was always afraid of people around him, who could conspire, undertake a coup d’état and remove Putin and replace him with somebody else. This is why he identified people who are weaker than him and he brought them to his close circle. These are the people who are afraid of him – and rightly so because he kills people he does not like. So, we should not be surprised that they help him rule and do his bidding.

I recommend watching the video of the meeting of Russia’s Security Council from three days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On February 21, Russian television showed the first part of this meeting between ministers, the head of the KGB, the head of the army, the prosecutor general, and the head of external intelligence, who are asked by Putin what do they think about his proposal. At that point, three days before the invasion, the audience thought that Putin was asking them to recognize the independence of the republic of Donetsk and Luhansk.

On the other hand, we now think that these people already understood that Putin was proposing a full-scale invasion. We could see how scared those people were – they understood that it was going to be a disaster. They had not thought that if they support Putin spending several billion dollars on trying to turn the Ukrainian public opinion in their favor, it would come to a test on whether Ukrainians would actually greet Russian tanks with flowers. Yet, they could not say that, so they were scared – which we could clearly see in the mentioned video. The same principle applied to re-arming the Russian army. They were not able to stand up to Putin because he can easily kill people or make them disappear – something we have seen also since February 2022 in relation to a number of high-ranking businesspeople and officials.

LJ: How would you describe the evolution of the political regime in Russia – while you were still there and after you left the country?

SG: I talk about it – together with Daniel Treisman – as well as about the instruments regimes like this use in our book, Spin Dictatorship: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (2022, Princeton University Press). Putin arrived in his office in 1999, when he was appointed as the prime minister by Boris Yeltsin, and then in 2012, when he ‘won’ his first presidential election. Since then, he has been following a user’s manual for spin dictators.

According to it, to remove checks and balances, you need to suppress or co-opt independent media and judges. In the European Union, we have seen it happen in Hungary and in Poland, where the Law and Justice party has worked in that direction and eventually succeeded in some dimensions.

Putin has been a spin dictator par excellence. First of all, he is very skillful and sophisticated, so he started to follow the said manual from his very first day in office. He started with the media landscape and took over the first channel of Russian television (NTV). He quickly reduced the free debate to a number of very small media outlets. Then, he took over the judiciary system and, next, he co-opted or subjugated the business community.

This evolution served as a means of building a machine which would allow Vladimir Putin to have an uncontested control over the political system and to create an illusion which would prevent the public from realizing that they no longer live in a democracy. To an untrained eye, it could look like he respects the Constitution – after all, he stepped down after two terms, he appointed Medvedev, and then came back. Moreover, the business community understands that they cannot interfere in politics and support opposition, but they can still do business. Clearly, there is a number of instruments which allowed Putin to build a very flexible system.

There is, however, one major problem with the system Putin created – because it is centralized, it cannot provide incentives and tools for economic growth. And economic growth is exactly what gives Putin his legitimacy. During his first ten years in the office, his popularity stemmed from the fact that the economy was growing fast, and the people were quite happy. This growth came from the reforms in the 1990s and at the beginning of Putin’s term, when he still had not cleaned up all of the economic scene and kicked out all of the good judges and government officials. Eventually, this source of growth disappeared.

Nonetheless, he was very lucky to come to the office when the economy was at a very low point.  Putin was also lucky because oil prices were growing, which helped the economic growth in the first decade. In the second decade, the prices were usually high, but they were not increasing. This is why Putin was able to present ten years of economic growth, which he eventually destroyed.

He did so by taking over the economy and businesses by the state and giving big chunks of economy to his friends. As a result, the Russian economy stagnated. Many experts, including myself, predicted that this would happen. We anticipated that Putin’s approval rating will be at the level of 70-80%, but the economy would be similar to that in the 1970s or 1980s. This turned out to be true.

The problem Putin faced in light of these phenomena was related to the fact that as soon as the economy stopped growing, his popularity dropped. So, he needed a boost. He managed to find it in 2014 thanks to the annexation of Crimea. It was a typical spin-dictator war – it was bloodless, easy to deny, and the West did not know how to digest and react to it.

This is why it was a big success. It was a move that is very characteristic of spin dictators around the world – they do things in such a way, so that you can still shake hands with them. The initial shock was there, Putin was slightly isolated, but no major foreign company left Russia, Russian businessmen continued to travel to Davos. Putin was considered a ‘bad guy,’ but not as much as he is right now. Therefore, it worked – until the impact of Crimea faded away and Putin once again faced a decline in popularity rankings. To that, he reacted by poisoning Alexei Navalny and putting him in jail, changing the Constitution, and eventually invading Ukraine in 2022.

LJ: How would you describe the forces at play with regard to the future of Russia? What will happen when Putin will no longer be in power?

SG: The war has become part of Putin’s ideology. As long as he is in office, the war will continue – unless Ukrainians win the war decisively. It did not happen in 2023 and it is difficult to imagine it happening in 2024. The intensity of the war will depend on how much resources he has and how strict the sanctions are, but the war itself will continue.

Once Putin is gone, things will change because the war is not popular. We do not see people volunteering to go to war and die for their homeland on the Russian side. They need to be paid a lot of money to get recruited into Putin’s army and go to Ukraine. There is no excitement surrounding Putin.

When we look at the leaked conversations between his oligarchs, we notice that they are scared, disappointed, and not happy. Even the official polls show that even though there is support for Putin, there is also a lack of support for the war. Recently, the head of the Russian official polling agency (VCIOM), Valery Fedorov, said the continuation of the war is supported by only around 20% of the Russian population.

Therefore, once Putin is gone and the fear is removed, negotiations will start very quickly. There exists a scenario in which Putin is succeeded by somebody around him, who would be even more brutal – it is possible. However, this regime is not likely to stay in Russia for long in its North Korean or Syrian version simply because Putin selected these people not on the basis of ideology, nor on their commitment to war, but because for 20 years they have been corrupt and loyal to him. Once he is gone, there will be no need for this loyalty or fear that he will kill them.

These corrupt people will be willing to negotiate in order to keep their palaces, yachts, and Swiss bank accounts. This will also help them stay in power because Putin has charisma and general support from Russian people. He presided over ten years of economic growth. People around him were selected to be faceless and are, therefore, not charismatic, so that they could not challenge Putin.

There is nobody around Putin who could replace him as a leader. In this sense, his successors will need a different source of legitimacy. The easiest thing they could do is to bring back foreign investment to remove sanctions, which is why they will negotiate.

Putin equals war. I hope that once he is gone, the war will stop as well.

LJ: What metrics, people, or institutions should we follow to know what is happening in Russia? And how are the media faring in Russia under Putin?

SG: There is no independent media in Russia. Putin’s job is to make sure that people who have left Russia are disconnected from it. Yet, it is not like the Soviet Union. There are many digital media outlets and Russians use social media.

As regards getting information, there are several ways in which one can scrape data from VK (a Russian social media platform). Official media also sometimes provide data which are probably correct. One can also buy leaked data – for instance, a lot of work is done on leaked customs data, which allows us to look at the aggregated trade transactions and see who supplies microprocessors to Russia, among others.

Nevertheless, recently, there has been speculation that Putin needs to announce his nomination for the presidential election in March 2024. This was supposed to happen on November 4 – the National Unity Day in Russia, which is an official holiday. Coincidentally, this is the day on which Russians believe they kicked Poles from the Kremlin 300 years ago. Everyone expected Putin to make an appearance during the celebrations and announce his candidacy.

This, however, did not happen. Facts like this inform us that maybe things are not that great – maybe Putin is ill, maybe he wants to first achieve some kind of victory in Ukraine before he announces that he will be running for the office again – which is why he has delayed his announcement. This is one of the signals that we should try to interpret. Clearly, it is not an easy feat, but it is not as difficult as it was in the Soviet times, when Sovietologists would look at in which order the members of the Politburo would stand at a military parade. Nowadays, we have much more information than back then – there are people within the system who leak their conversations or are listened to by Ukrainians who publish those leaks.

Moreover, many Russian emigrants talk to people who stayed in Russia via secure messengers, so there is a lot of communication happening when we compare it to what was happening in the Soviet times.

LJ: What impact has the technological advancement on the future of spin dictatorship? Will there be any convergence between populist democracies and spin dictatorships resulting in non-experts having difficulty in telling the two apart?

SG: Populist democracies still have free and fair elections. Populists can still lose the election – like recently in Poland. Meanwhile, many authoritarian populists want to become spin dictators, but not all of them succeed – Viktor Orban was successful, whereas Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi failed. It is plausible that Trump will come back and try it again, but, at the moment, the United States remain a democracy (and so does Italy). So, there is a difference.

In a dictatorship, the leaders control the system. Sometimes, they make mistakes and lose elections and power, try to steal elections, are overthrown by street protests – these things happen. However, their rule is based on the premise of not having free and fair political competition – populist democracies may want to do it but may not necessarily manage to do it.

Coming back to your first question, in our book, we talk about China. It is not a spin dictatorship but a digital brutal dictatorship. It is very open about its regime and does not pretend to be a democracy. It uses technology for its own purposes. Yet even China is not infinitely stable. The reason for that is because dictators do not manage the economy well. Even though China was doing extremely well in the last 40 years, but now it is slowing down.

In the case of regimes like China, we need to ask a question why do we need rotation every ten years? It was a tradition started by Europeans, where there Is a tradition of a rotation every ten years, age limits, and meritocracy within the parties, which promote people who have successfully fulfilled their duties. In China, for many years there was a fear of the cult of personality (like Mao) because it is dangerous for people around that person. Therefore, the memory of how dangerous it was protected China from personalist dictatorship. Nonetheless, this memory faded away, and now personalist dictatorship is in place.

In a personalist dictatorship, the dictator makes mistakes. The dictator does not provide opportunities for innovation because big business is a political threat – this is why Xi Jinping cracked down on education and hi-tech businesses. As a result, the economy slows down – and this is normal. Therefore, it is much harder to convince voters or citizens that things are fine.

Adam Przeworski, a Polish-American political scientist, once said that authoritarian equilibrium rests on three things: prosperity, fear, and lies. Fear dictatorship uses fear. Spin dictatorship chooses money and information (prosperity and lies). If prosperity disappears, they continue lying.

However, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” This is what happened to Putin after the annexation of Crimea – it took a few years, but eventually people of Crimea realized that their incomes are below what they had in 2013. In the end, the ‘fridge’ beats the ‘TV.’ Once you see that your bank account says something different than what the propaganda makes you to believe, then the time of reckoning is coming.

I am not very optimistic about the future of spin dictatorship – even when it is paired with technology. However, I am also aware that some of these regimes may evolve into fear dictatorships (like China) – without prosperity, but with a very strict control on using modern technologies. This is something we should all fear – if the Chinese government learns how to use Artificial Intelligence well and overtakes the West in this aspect, we should all be scared.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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