Grigory Yavlinsky
Grigory Yavlinsky at the Kremlin in March 2018, awaiting a meeting with the Russian president after Vladimir Putin's election to a fourth term.

Russia’s ‘Peripheral Authoritarianism’ as Described by Grigory Yavlinsky

March 22, 2019
RM Staff


“The Putin System: An Opposing View”
By Grigory Yavlinsky
Columbia University Press, February 2019

In his new book, Grigory Yavlinsky, one of post-Soviet Russia’s most enduring liberal politicians, describes the emergence of his country’s current system of governance, which he terms “peripheral authoritarianism,” and predicts its impending doom. His explanation of how the system came to be, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, is convincing, as is his important point about its continuity: Yavlinsky understands that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies grew as much out of Yeltsin’s behavior and policies as out of the two men’s shared Soviet past. Putin, in other words, did not create peripheral authoritarianism, but was a product of it. The author also neither demonizes nor exculpates the West for its role in Russia’s failure to embrace a functioning form of democracy, and he warns that today’s heavy-handed, punitive approach to Moscow could backfire.

At the same time, the book has several weaknesses in our view. First, it lurches back and forth between scholarly analysis and memoir in a jarring mix of the two genres. On one hand, Yavlinsky couches his observations in theory, giving the book an academic thrust; on the other, he laments at length the sidelining of the Yabloko party he cofounded 25 years ago, advocating for himself and his allies as important points of contact between reform-minded forces in Russia and the West. Second, the book fails to give a comparative perspective on Russia, and is short on data and quantitative evidence in spots where they would have helped. Finally, the author argues that Russia’s current system “cannot last,” but doesn’t muster convincing evidence to back the claim. Not all authoritarian regimes implode. Some of them have survived for decades, muddling through somehow, on the periphery or not.

The Russian-language version of the book came out in 2015 with the title “Peripheral Capitalism: Where Russia Has Come and How It Got There.” In the English edition, Yavlinsky notes several developments he’s observed since then. The first is the authorities’ “increasingly strong reliance … on tight ideological pressure on society.” The second involves the regime’s advances in “ridding itself of elements intrinsically alien to autocracy, such as political party pluralism, popular elections … [and] any instruments of external control over the activities of government officials.” Finally, the author notes “the system’s increased personalism,” meaning “the elimination of any checks” on Putin’s personal power. “It could be argued,” Yavlinsky writes in the afterword, “that recent developments have made it nearly impossible for external actors to influence political decision-making or political activities in Russia.”

Below, we quote and summarize some of the book’s most noteworthy points, divided loosely by historical periods.

I. Yeltsin’s Russia

  • “[D]uring the early and mid-1990s, Russia’s post-Soviet political system passed the first of its developmental crossroads by opting for an authoritarian model of development” over one based on political competition. “Russia developed this kind of political system gradually, step by step, but quite consistently and steadily.”
  • Russia’s system of governance can be described as (1) peripheral and (2) authoritarian because:
  1. Russia's capitalism remains a typical, albeit distinctive, “example of the periphery of the world economy. It is economically as well as technologically dependent” on the core of the global economy, made up of “the developed countries of the West. It also has preserved vast enclaves of archaic economic and social ways of life” and lacks “internal engines of growth and development in the form of an autonomous accumulation of capital built on a technological foundation that would have the ability to renew itself.”
  2. “This system precludes the replacement of the ruling circle without the simultaneous breakup of the entire system… [It is] geared toward its own self-perpetuation. It excludes the possibility of either spontaneously evolving or reforming itself in accordance with a changing environment. Finally, this is a system based upon the redistribution of rents derived from administrative power.”
  • Those who now “present the 1990s as a period of unprecedented blooming of democracy in Russia … tend to omit the fact that no one within Russia's ruling circle at the time accepted the possibility of voluntarily relinquishing power to another group of people on the basis of its winning more votes than … Boris Yeltsin.”
  • But if the presidential election of 1996 (in which Yavlinsky took part) still held a tiny chance “for the country to swerve onto a different trajectory” and possibly transition “to a liberal, competition-based political system,” in 1996-1999 that probability fell “to a statistically negligible level.”
  • The factors in the 1990s that led to the present-day peripheral authoritarianism include:
  1. The “fusion of governmental power with the ownership of economic assets,” which arose in part due to the hyperinflation of 1992 (“the government’s expropriation of savings”), “the crime-ridden privatizations” of 1995-1997 (the loans-for-shares auctions) and “election fraud and the subjugation of the media in 1996-1998”;
  2. The reformers’ “Bolshevik methods” whereby the ends justified the means;
  3. The “authorities’ refusal to reassess Soviet-era history” and “pass judgment at the governmental level on the legacy of Stalinism and Bolshevism.”
  • “The prevailing response in the West to the tectonic political shifts that occurred in the Soviet Union was shortsighted and selfish. The political shift was viewed as merely an opportunity to get  rid of an old irritant… [H]aving lost a practical interest in developing a rational framework of relationships, as it had done with the Soviet Union, the West began to marginalize Russia in various contexts, both as a country and as a people.”

II. Putin’s Russia

  • The turn of the 21st century “was no turning point. There was no switch from one set of principles and one system of governance” to another. What happened around 2000 “was that the system of rule that had already taken shape by then had become structured and, in its own way, accomplished … and then transitioned into a new stage of its existence.”
  • During the 2000s Russia “passed a second major road fork,” choosing “a conservative, stagnation-prone type of authoritarianism” over “a modernizing type of authoritarianism.”
  • In the past decade “rent extraction” by the authorities has been “ongoing and even blooming.” In fact, “all the major costs of economic activities in Russia (the cost of labor, the cost of energy, transportation costs, administrative burdens, real estate rents, security costs, and so on) have been rapidly increasing since the turn of the century, with the exception of a brief period during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.”
  • Corruption has become “exorbitant,” facilitating the outflow of capital. But Russia’s “underdevelopment and [the] extreme vulnerability of [its] social and economic institutions … have shaped two distinctive features” that set Russia’s corruption apart from that in the “core” capitalist countries:
  1. “The relative underdevelopment of sophisticated and veiled forms of corruption that require a higher-level institutional structure for their implementation; and
  2. “A more explicit relationship between corruption-driven enrichment and the outflows of capital from Russia.”
  • Authoritarian systems tend to be “rather colorless in ideological terms,” but in the early 2010s Putin’s system became much more interested in developing an ideological stance to brainwash ordinary Russians after it became “evident that the period of nearly automatic rapid growth of incomes was coming to an end … and that the opportunities for the appropriation and distribution of administrative rents had hit their limits.” A “cult of peculiar ‘traditional values’” has emerged since then and, with it, three ideological trends:
  1. “[R]elentless propagandizing of the need for ‘strong power’”;
  2. “[S]upporting the authorities is portrayed as the civic duty of the people … regardless of the extent of disagreements among them”;
  3. “Finally, the third ideological tenet posits a hostile international environment.”
  • Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine and ultimate annexation of Crimea was “an arbitrary decision of the president, who was given the legal authority to use military force abroad with no reservation or prior discussion” by parliament. As justification, a new version of a “‘Eurasian’ empire-building” ideology was “presented as an alternative to European values.”
  • At the same time, “the role played by the Ukrainian crisis in the authoritarian regime’s turn toward self-isolation from the West should not be overstated. The crisis only provided a convenient pretext for Russia’s ruling elite to make a show of its ‘divorce’ from the West.”
  • Russia has become a “full-blown autocracy with markedly peripheral traits and a tendency toward stagnation.” It is (1) isolating itself, (2) regressing and (3) transitioning from peripheral to parochial:
  1. “The policy of self-isolation implies that any international contacts with individual agencies that do not directly involve the people at the top of the pyramid of power are … a potentially dangerous activity.”
  2. “[R]egardless of its distinctive country-specific features, we are witnessing the country's regression into … a premodern state,” meaning that government does not serve the nation as a whole, but is “an aggregate sum of corporate units wielding administrative power,” each of which carries out “tasks related to its own survival and prosperity while also fulfilling certain obligations” to those “possessing more resources and authority.”
  3. If Russia slips into parochialism, it will be marked by “a pronounced reluctance to change one's position on the global order of things, as well as the conviction that the familiar status quo and the concomitant way of life are the best options … possible. The media [will] start portraying poverty as beneficial and describing stagnation … as fidelity to tradition.”
  • “Russia is by no means inherently anti-Western,” but the rise of peripheral authoritarianism “has resulted in antagonistic relations with key Western powers.”
  • The “ruling circle has decided that a conspicuous isolation or self-isolation of Russia from the West suits them better than attempts to adjust their behavior to the West and its rules.”
  • “[M]any of Russia’s policies stem from its leadership’s resentment over being treated as a peripheral player, progressively marginalized within most international institutions and their decision-making on major global and regional issues.” The interference in U.S. elections “represents a rather brazen effort to take revenge” for this peripheral position and status.
  • Western sanctions did not have the “desired effect on the ruling elite” in Russia. Moreover, “the latest World Wealth Report shows that, from 2015 to 2016, the number of millionaires in Russia and their total wealth grew by 20 percent—faster than the total for the world—and the growth continued in 2017, though at a lower rate.”
  • The West’s “hardline approach is highly likely to backfire, by strengthening the regime and hardening nationalistic support for its foreign ventures.”

III. Future Russia: “The Regime Is Doomed”

  • “I agree with those who believe that this regime is doomed… Putin’s system cannot last” because “its built-in deficiencies will prevent it from maintaining continuous control over political and business life. … [M]embers of the ruling circle will become aware of the looming crisis and the need for change. Inevitably, that will require either a deep review of the system … or a reform of political life on completely different principles, which would also invite radical changes in business life. However, before that happens, the system will have to travel the entire road from supposed triumph to actual collapse.”  
  • Here is how regime change can occur in Russia:
  1. “[I]f present-day authoritarian regimes ever lose their grip on society, it usually is caused not by some external impact or by a lack of international competitiveness; rather, it typically comes about for internal reasons.” Foremost among these is the regime’s inability to maintain control over “economic, political and social developments within its jurisdiction. … [T]his failure, in turn, may occur simply because several things go wrong at the same time or, more often, because [of] mistakes or erratic decisions … by the ruling circle or the autocratic leader.”
  2. “[T]he duty of all healthy political forces in Russia is to make an effort to develop and to put forward a realistic alternative, a truly practical plan to overcome the present crisis. If necessary, this plan may need to be imposed upon Russia's fearful and disoriented political elite… By the time Russia approaches the next fork in the road, there must be well-educated and politically acute people ready to use the moment of truth to reinstate necessary political institutions. That’s why I thought it necessary and important to take the opportunity to talk to the nation as a presidential candidate in the recent [2018] campaign. We must work for the future by cultivating the soil for a forthcoming new politics in Russia.”

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.