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Portrait of Putin - President of the Russian Federation

Portrait of Putin - President of the Russian Federation
 Quentin Peel
Associate Fellow with the Europe Programme at Chatham House

"Neo-authoritarian", "neo-authoritarianism": these terms are now flourishing in intellectual circles in the United States. It is worth recalling that last May, Time magazine dedicated its cover page to "the strong man" and published an article on the matter written by one of the country's leading strategists, Ian Bremmer. The topic is now being investigated by other renowned authors. A recent example: one of the Brookings' most brilliant researchers, Thomas Wright, wrote in "The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable" that "internationalist liberals" should now switch paradigms. In essence, he argues that we will not manage to resurrect "the international liberal order", but that it is becoming urgent to counter the rise of neo-authoritarians who pose an existential threat to democracies.

How should such a topic be apprehended? Institut Montaigne chose a somewhat empirical approach. Over the Summer, we posted on our blog, under the responsibility of Michel Duclos, Special Advisor to Institut Montaigne and editor of this series, a gallery of portraits of various dictators, autocrats or "strong men" who now govern an impressive number of countries. Who are they? In order: Putin, Orban, Erdogan, MbZ/MbS, Sisi, Assad, Modi, Xi and, inevitably, Trump. Each of these portraits were written by authoritative specialists, who sometimes had to resort to pseudonyms for reasons that one can imagine. Isn’t our selection of portraits slightly arbitrary? Of course it is, and we are fully aware of it: yet elements likely to launch a debate emerge from this juxtaposition of very different profiles, as emphasized in our concluding paper (What to Do About Neo-Authoritarians?).

Two further questions might perhaps be worth answering. Why this term "neo-authoritarians"? And what is the difference between the latter and populists? Our intuition was that three characteristics distinguished new authoritarians from the old ones: unlike frozen dictatorships, they have a real power of attraction (see the "Putin model"); they have all been conditioned by the configuration of the past 18 years; they come from different, if not opposite, political traditions (dictatorships/democracies) yet share a number of common practices. Not all neo-authoritarians are populists, and populism may indeed tend towards authoritarianism, but there are some exceptions.

It is clear, however, that the links between these different phenomena, as well as their economic and social underpinnings, or even a "geopolitics" of neo-authoritarianism, are among the key topics that need to be explored in order to better understand the spirit of our times - the latter often being reminiscent of that of the 1930s. But first, through this series of portraits, who are the neo-authoritarians?

We thus begin, of course, with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, an emblematic figure - if not patron saint - of the brotherhood of neo-authoritarians. Yet our portrait painter, Quentin Peel, freelance journalist and associate fellow with the Europe Programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, expresses doubts: can the Putin "model" really be replicated?

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.


Vladimir Putin’s election in March for a fourth term as president of Russia – even if the contest was a travesty of democracy, and his 77 per cent score inflated by ballot-rigging – means that he has now ruled the country for longer than anyone since Joseph Stalin. That is no mean achievement for a man who became leader more by default than design.
Including the four-year interregnum when he installed his loyal acolyte Dmitry Medvedev in the presidency, he has been in power for 18 years – longer than Leonid Brezhnev. He has ruthlessly side-lined his challengers, emasculated, seduced or suborned the oligarchs who owned most of the economy, centralised power in the Kremlin after the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thrust Russia back to the top table of global politics.
His name is virtually synonymous with his country: “Putin’s Russia” is common currency for commentators (although the concept infuriates the few brave democratic opponents who still manage to express their dissent). But as he presides over the public relations triumph of the football World Cup, and greets Donald Trump for a happy chat in Helsinki after a fractious Nato summit in Brussels, is he really as strong and effective as he appears?
"To the casual follower of mainstream Western media coverage, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has … become the platonic ideal of modern autocracy," says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. Yet his system, if it can be called that, is peculiarly Russian: stable to the point of stagnation in the key positions of power, and lacking any coherent plan for a succession.
Putin is the one person holding it together, with a whole apparatus of propaganda and image-management designed to cultivate the impression of coherence, and the FSB security service arguably more powerful and ubiquitous than the KGB ever was in Soviet days in enforcing discipline. The key sources of income from oil and gas and other natural resources are back in the effective control of the state, as part of a system of privilege and corruption without checks or balances. As for the rule of law, it is there to protect the state, not the individual. And the Kremlin is the ultimate arbiter.

In spite of a series of disastrous setbacks in the early years of his presidency [...] Putin has emerged as the unchallenged strong man in the Kremlin

Putin came to power almost by accident. In 1999 he was the last man standing in a string of short-lived and unremarkable prime ministers who headed the Russian government in the dying days of Boris Yeltsin’s regime. "He was put there as an imitation of a strong man," says Arkady Ostrovsky, Russia editor of the Economist magazine. "He was supposed to fit the image, but not be the real thing. That was how he was sold to Yeltsin."

His experience as a mid-ranking intelligence officer in the KGB was scarcely an obvious qualification, even if he does speak German and served the perestroika years in Dresden. It was when he became deputy mayor of St Petersburg in charge of foreign investment, in the early 1990s, that he was spotted by Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch closest to the Yeltsin Family. He was seen as a safe pair of hands: utterly loyal to his boss, Anatoly Sobchak, discreet and efficient.
Summoned to Moscow to join the Kremlin’s property department (an empire in itself),  he was rapidly promoted to deputy chief of staff to Yeltsin and then head of the FSB. In 1999 it was Yeltsin’s daughter Tanya and her partner Valya Dumashev, with Berezovsky, who picked him as the presidential successor most likely to protect them and their system after they left power. He has proved to be both loyal and ruthless: Yeltsin and his family were safe, but Berezovsky was one of the first oligarchs he forced to abandon his media empire and flee the country. They became implacable enemies. Putin never forgave the UK for giving his bitter rival political asylum.
In 2000, Putin owed his first presidential election victory to the ruthless prosecution of a new war against secessionist rebels in Chechnya while he was prime minister. Berezovsky always claimed it was cynically launched in order to win the election. It certainly gave Putin popular legitimacy, and taught him a lesson in power politics he has never forgotten.
Since then, in spite of a series of disastrous setbacks in the early years of his presidency – the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk with the loss of 118 lives, terrorist seizures of hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theatre and a school in southern Russia, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that unseated Moscow’s chosen president – Putin has emerged as the unchallenged strong man in the Kremlin.

Ostrovsky describes him as "a post-modern tsar…who came to save Russia from disintegration after a period of chaos and disorder."He presents himself as above politics and above government, a man who is "wedded to the Russian people … miraculously restoring people’s fortunes and disbursing favours over the heads of his bureaucrats".

His alternative "managed democracy" or "sovereign democracy" is not exactly a one-party state, but a close equivalent

To populist party leaders challenging liberal democracy in the rest of Europe – such as Viktor Orban in Hungary or Marine Le Pen in France – he is lauded as an authoritarian role model, a champion of conservative social values and nationalist attitudes. But his democratic critics both inside and outside Russia see him as cynical autocrat, presiding over a pyramid of patronage, intolerant of all dissent, and apparently tolerant of the imprisonment, violent suppression – even murder – of potential opponents who dare to speak out against him.
On the one hand, he has pursued a blatantly revanchist policy in his "near abroad", particularly in Georgia and Ukraine, where his annexation of Crimea was hugely popular in Russia. He has bluntly rejected any form of open and competitive democracy as simply inappropriate for Russia. His alternative "managed democracy" or "sovereign democracy" is not exactly a one-party state, but a close equivalent, with his United Russia party enjoying overwhelming advantages of money, media access and administrative support. It is a party of power, not of policies.

Meanwhile Putin presides over an ailing economy which has signally failed to diversify from its wasteful reliance on the vast natural resources of Siberia, while a fifth of the national budget devoted to military and security spending. A handful of oligarchs and state enterprise magnates are still obscenely wealthy. The difference to the Yeltsin years is that many of them are the close associates of the president, or their children. Ever since the arrest and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil empire, they know they owe their assets and survival to the neo-tsar in the Kremlin.

The three central pillars of the Russian nation derived from his constant reading of history: orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality

In spite of surviving so long as a public figure, Putin’s character and beliefs are still the subject of intense speculation. Perhaps that is not surprising for someone who began his career in the KGB. Although he was not the candidate of the security services when he became president, his whole outlook is coloured by his KGB background and training. He believes above all in the vital importance and central role of the state – gosudarstvo. That fits into his belief in the three central pillars of the Russian nation derived from his constant reading of history: orthodoxy (i.e. the Russian Orthodox church), autocracy (the rule of a tsar), and nationality (narodnost’ – a word that derives from narod, meaning "the people" – das Volk in German).

Another direct inheritance from KGB training is his belief in conspiracy theories: that nothing happens in the world except by (malign) design. He shares that conviction with many fellow-countrymen, especially among the most conservative nationalists. It drives his repeated accusation that Russia is the target of constant western – especially US – destabilisation.
He blames Ukraine’s popular uprisings against Russian influence – the Orange revolution in 2004 and the Maidan protests in 2013 that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych – on a covert US operation. After all, that is precisely what the KGB would have done.
The other major influences on his belief have been personal experiences: watching the East German communist system collapse in the face of street demonstrations, and seeing the same power of protest in the Orange revolution in Ukraine, and the Rose revolution in Georgia. Indeed, his horror at the thought of anything like the "colour revolutions" coming to the streets of Russia seems to have driven his own path to clamp down on opposition groups, and non-governmental organisations financed by foreign foundations, such as the Soros Foundation, or pro-democracy US agencies.
His other driving conviction is the desire to restore respect for Russia in the world, which he saw destroyed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the chaotic rule of Boris Yeltsin. As a good KGB man, he sees fear as an essential part of that respect, and he tolerates the use of violence to get it, even if he has not ordered that violence personally. That seems to be the case with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, the most charismatic opposition leader, almost under the walls of the Kremlin, or the use of a nerve agent to attack the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK.
So is there a "Putin model" or a "Putin system" that can be copied in other parts of the world? Scarcely. It is so peculiarly Russian, and a consequence of the very particular history of the Soviet Union and its collapse, that it looks impossible to export. Indeed, some close observers doubt there is anything there to copy.
"He has not created a system," says Sir Andrew Wood, former UK ambassador in Moscow. "He has created a situation where the independent organs of government are enervated from defining policy, or arranging a succession. It is frozen anarchy."
That is scarcely the epitaph that Mr Putin would like to see on his memorial.


Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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