Book Review: Yavlinsky on the Putin System

Twenty five years ago or so, Grigory Yavlinsky, was a reasonably serious political actor. His Yabloko party won 7% of the vote, and 45 seats, in the 1995 elections to the Russia State Duma, and the following year Yavlinsky won a similar share of the vote in the Russian presidential election. As the foremost representative of Russian liberalism, Yabloko was never very popular, but it had enough support to get a place in the corridors of power. Those days are long gone. Nowadays, Yavlinsky and Yabloko get about 1% of the vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. ‘Why should we bother listening to them?’ you might ask.

I’m not sure that Yavlinsky’s new book The Putin System: An Opposing View (in fact a translation and updating of a 2015 Russian-language text) provides much of an answer. On the plus side, the book is a much more sophisticated critique of modern Russia than most of what you find in bookstores nowadays. But at at the end of day, it ends up in much the same place, warning readers of Russia’s rapid decline into totalitarianism. What you get, then, is more of the same, but with the hysterical language of popular authors replaced by dense academic prose.

For that reason, The Putin System is not going to be a best-seller. It’s kind of dull: highly theoretical, and lacking in specifics. I can’t see anybody who’s not a die-hard Russia watcher wanting to spend a lot of time drudging through it. However, as that’s my job, let me tell you more or less what it says.

yavlinsky

Yavlinsky argues that the ‘Putin system’ is best described as ‘peripheral authoritarianism’, and he spends a lot of time explaining what he means by this. Russia is ‘peripheral’ because it stands outside the ‘core’ of global capitalism, its role being merely to be supply raw materials to the core. And it’s authoritarian because its system is non-competitive. Yavlinsky notes that the distinction between authoritarianism and democracy is a false one. What defines a system, according to Yavlinsky, is how the elite is chosen. So-called ‘democracies’ aren’t necessarily run by the ‘people’; while so-called ‘authoritarian’ states may be quite responsive to popular demands. It varies according to local conditions and to the nature of the particular elite. The real difference, he says, is between competitive and non-competitive systems. Russia is non-competitive, as the elites have ways of ensuring that they stay in power regardless of elections. It is Russia’s non-competitive system which makes it authoritarian, Yavlinsky says.

At this point, I found myself quite liking Yavlinsky and The Putin System. Again and again, analysts throw out words like ‘authoritarian’ to describe Russia without saying what they mean. Yavlinsky at least makes an effort to define his terms, which gives us something we can talk about, rather than just throw insults around. Definitions matter. What stood out for me from this definition was Yavlinsky’s elitist understanding of politics. I’ll return to this later.

The non-competitive nature of the Russian state, Yavlinsky argues, is a natural product of the system of property relations established in the 1990s. Here he sounds a bit like Tony Wood in his book Russia without Putin. Shock therapy in the 1990s redistributed property in a way that concentrated it in the hands of a few, and created an unhealthy mutual dependency between the state and the new rich. An independent middle class failed to develop. Meanwhile, Russia remained primarily a natural resource exporter, on the periphery of the international system. All this reduced the opportunities for self-enrichment, and made it easy for the elite to capture the few opportunities which remained, turning the state into nothing more than a system for distributing rents from the few profitable sectors of the economy into the hands of the select. This created strong incentives for the elite to inhibit competition which might threaten their dominance, gradually squeezing that competition until the state became something close to totalitarian. This process began under Yeltsin. There was no sharp break, therefore, between Yeltsin and Putin. The latter simply continued what the former had started. The basic theory is this:

Authoritarianism as a political system is essentially an unavoidable or nearly unavoidable result of the domination of a peripheral-type capitalism in the country. The reason for this is that, being peripheral, this type of capitalism relies on a narrow range of rather unsophisticated resources and, therefore, by its very nature, does not generate sufficient prerequisites for a full-fledged functioning of political competition.

Authoritarian systems can be responsive and modernizing, Yavlinsky says, but the Russian version of authoritarianism, he claims, is not like this. By suppressing competition it is bound to stifle initiative, prevent necessary reform, and in the long term produce economic stagnation. The only way out of this is to move away from the periphery towards the ‘core’, i.e. towards the West. Instead, the state is moving in the opposite direction, thus ensuring its ultimate failure. Consequently, says Yavlinsky, ‘I agree with those who believe that this regime is doomed.’

As I said, this is a more sophisticated analysis than the normal ‘Putin is evil’ explanation for Russia’s authoritarian turn, although it ends up in much the same place. There may even be something to it. But I have some doubts. In the 1990s, resources were also unequally redistributed in Ukraine, which is also a ‘peripheral’ state, and yet independent Ukraine has always had a very competitive political system. At the same time, the competitive nature of that system hasn’t done Ukraine any obvious good. This casts some doubt on Yavlinsky’s analysis of the causes of Russian authoritarianism as well as on the benefits of political competition.

An even more fundamental weakness of this book is that Yavlinsky doesn’t provide any answers about how to get out of the problem he identifies. In fact, he admits that it’s not at all that easy. Part of the solution would appear to be joining the ‘core’ – i.e. Western Europe. But is this anymore the ‘core’ of the world? Yavlinsky claims that authoritarianism is identified with being on the periphery of global capitalism, and competitive systems with being in the core. But isn’t China now very much part of the core of global capitalism? Yavlinsky’s periphery-core model of the world strikes me as rather out of date.

In any case, how can one make Russia more ‘competitive’ if the lack of competition is a reflection of the economic substructure? If you follow this sort of Marxist analysis, changing the ruler and a few ministers and issuing some decrees about human rights, fair elections, and so on, won’t change anything if the substructure remains unaltered. But how do you change that? Yavlinsky doesn’t tell us, beyond the following:

The duty of all healthy political forces in Russia is to make an effort to develop and 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, which may have to be forced to fulfill its responsibilities toward the country and its people. [My emphasis]

What do we get from this? Politics for Yavlinsky appears to be a matter of the economic substructure and of the elites. There’s no talk here of democracy or what the Russian people want. Even more startling, it would seem that after 30 years in politics, Yavlinsky still doesn’t have a plan for how to reform Russia. But what he does know is that whenever this great plan does emerge it may have to be ‘imposed’ upon Russia for the greater good of all.

I found this a little off-putting. For a notional liberal democrat, it turns out that Grigory Yavlinsky is just a smidgen too Bolshevik for my liking.

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Yavlinsky on the Putin System”

  1. “This created strong incentives for the elite to inhibit competition which might threaten their dominance, gradually squeezing that competition until the state became something close to totalitarian.”

    But this is true for every capitalist system. Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, ExxonMobil, a couple of financial giants. Who are they competing with?

    …I remember 10 years ago I realized that UBS is much richer and more powerful than the ostensibly super-democratic state of Switzerland, where it’s registered.

    Russia’s ungood, okay. But who is good and how, exactly?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. > the elites have ways of ensuring that they stay in power regardless of elections.

    Isn’t that a description of a “deep state”? Wouldn’t USA be one of the most authoritarian regimes by this definition? Towards which system exactly does he want Russia to move towards?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Snap. For how long has Richard “The Dick” Cheney been in politics? He’s still very much a star in the political fundament despite being officially retired, and still is very much listened to and active in an advisory role. The very greatest part of the influential corporate deep state in America consists of wealthy elites who have never been elected to anything except perhaps the boardroom.

      It’s not a very solid defense to say, “Someone else does it, too”, but I question to what degree the Russian state actually is authoritarian in the sense it is beholden to the elites. Putin just as frequently makes a spontaneous decision upon visiting some factory in Yaroslavl or somewhere, and issues an executive order that it be kept open (if the workers were complaining it might be closed, say) before he even leaves town. Putin is definitely the Alpha Dog, but I have not seen many substantiated examples of him misusing it, and on the contrary he is usually quite restrained in his public manner.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “[T]his type of capitalism relies on a narrow range of rather unsophisticated resources and, therefore, by its very nature, does not generate sufficient prerequisites for a full-fledged functioning of political competition.”

    Query (just one!). Since when did the weapon systems became “rather unsophisticated resources” (c)?

    “Consequently, says Yavlinsky, ‘I agree with those who believe that this regime is doomed.’”

    Girsh Alexeyevich Yavlisnky is a fan of Lev Nathanovich Scharansky: Confirmed.

    Because “you have to live not by a lie” (c). “For yours and ours freedom” (c). ТакЪ победимЪ!

    “The duty of all healthy political forces in Russia is to make an effort to develop and put forward a realistic alternative, a truly practical plan to overcome the present crisis.”

    >Written in 2015

    Yabloko (and the rest of “non-systemic opposition” parties of Russia) is not among the “healthy political forces: Confirmed.

    “For a notional liberal democrat, it turns out that Grigory Yavlinsky is just a smidgen too Bolshevik for my liking.”

    There is nothing “Bolshevik” in him. A lot of fascist though, ergo the liberast (liberal + facist) sobriquet that applies to him and other “Russian” “liberals”.

    Would it kill you to refrain from lazy anti-Communism, Professor? I know, you are not getting younger with each passing year, but for THIS to be the main danger to your health…

    Like

    1. “For a notional liberal democrat, it turns out that Grigory Yavlinsky is just a smidgen too Bolshevik for my liking.”

      Well maybe there is? Although, #metoo’, just like Pavlov’s dogs, may have slightly salivated here. Considering its usage in present discourse.

      PL:Meanwhile, Russia remained primarily a natural resource exporter, on the periphery of the international system. All this reduced the opportunities for self-enrichment, and made it easy for the elite to capture the few opportunities which remained, turning the state into nothing more than a system for distributing rents from the few profitable sectors of the economy into the hands of the select.

      Noticed the fine irony here? Competition? Really? That’s all needed?

      What I liked about Mark Smith book, which the dear Prof reviewed a while ago, was that he callenged the idea that Russia was ever peripheral from a European perspective. … Obviously it wasn’t.

      I have yet to move on to Russian Conservativism. Slow reader.

      *******
      But if I may. I would offer Kaspersky Lap as ‘competitve evidence’* beyond your suggested military industrial complex evidence as pretty competive beyond the exploitation of natural resources.

      * Is there something like economic competitive Darwinism? And if so, how would it work? At least one of my profs in media studies suggested something along those lines.

      Like

      1. PL vs PR. PL should have been PR, obviously. Still watching PL after all these years. Although there were at least two basic times, I felt I should never return.

        curious though. The magical force of routine? Only? Or something else? Something beyond pure curiosity?

        Like

    1. Gotta have ‘Putin’ in the title. …

      ‘Peripheral authoritarianism’ would be more accurate, I suggest. As I explain in my book, autocracy (samoderzhavie) is something different (at least in theory).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can see why a publisher or marketing team might opt for a title change. “The Putin System: An opposing view” conveys the bare minimum information needed to”get” what the book is about. Nevertheless, it is generic. Yes, opposing views exist. What about ’em?

        Re: translation: I see your point. Though “autocratic” and “authoritarian” are occasionally used interchangably in political science texts.

        Like

      2. RS,
        Most of what I read is history or poli sci, rather than political economy per se. So, if it’s specifically political economy you’re after, I’m not well placed to answer. That said, one political economist studying Russia I would recommend is Richard Connolly of Birmingham University in the UK.
        Paul

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “Russia is ‘peripheral’ because it stands outside the ‘core’ of global capitalism, its role being merely to be supply raw materials to the core”.
    This is not only unproven but simply wrong. This thesis is based on the assumption that the Western capitalism is the “core” and the rest is “periphery”, which is clearly no longer quite true and is going to be even less so in near future.

    Beside, we can just as easily to look at the situation the other way: the role of the “core” is merely to supply money to Russia for Russia to do its own thing. Russia is a hell of a lot more self sufficient now than the “core”. If anything is to happen to Russia, the “core” would have its collective butt frozen in winter, and the German industry would collapse. Russia would survive, though, for it can heat, feed and cloth itself, unlike the “core”.

    “Russia is non-competitive, as the elites have ways of ensuring that they stay in power regardless of elections”.
    Isn’t that the case anywhere? That’s why it’s called “elites”. It remains in power whether the people elect a clown in a red hat or a clown in a blue hat. The US is the case in point.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmmm? OK:
      If anything is to happen to Russia, the “core” would have its collective butt frozen in winter, and the German industry would collapse.

      As German, should I consider this as warning. That the prototypical liberals, the Americans, have been right all along.

      We better should shift to American LNG now?

      How do you define core?

      Like

    2. thanks for stating all that… i wanted to ”like’ your comment, but the only way to convey this is via signing into something i don’t want to sign into!

      thanks also to paul r for this book review!

      Like

  5. And one more thing. About “Yabloko” the party:

    “As the foremost representative of Russian liberalism, Yabloko was never very popular, but it had enough support to get a place in the corridors of power”

    “Yabloko” IS a liberal democratic party and is internationally recognized as such. You, Professor, as person self-indentifying with being a liberal, have to respect their choice – and EU’s best and brightest’ as well. Why? Because Yavlinsky’s brainchild is (since 2006) a member of The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE Party). It’s worthy checking out the list of luminaries belonging to that august EU-ropean grouping. Don’t tell me, Professor, that you’ve never before heard about, say, Mark Rutte or Andrej Babiš. Also, please don’t lower my evaluation of your knowledge, by feigning ignorance about this two prominent members of the ALDE – Lib Dems (UK) and Fianna Fail (Republic of Ireland).

    [Also, if you scroll at the very bottom of the article, you’d find out other “prominent” member parties – like Russian “ParNaS” (a brainchild of Mikhail “Misha 2%” Kasyanov) and “New Kosovo Alliance” (no comments)]

    I have a question to you – are these fine people also “too Bolshevik” for you? Because when a party or a political movement takes a Devil’s bargain signs up with the ALDE fellows, it has to subject its political program to the (externally provided) shop-list of conditions and requirements, in order to (continuously) prove their “liberalness”. Citizens liberals also like to congregate with each others in appropriate locations and settings, thus enhancing each other’s handshakability and having a jolly good time.

    ALDE is the (chief) reason, why both ParNaS and Yabloko decided not to recognize Crimea as part of Russia plus took other questionable political decisions in liue of “progressivism”. Both ParNas and Yabloko (and, therefore, their Great Helmsmen) are not at liberty to change their credo doctrine without approval from the proper humans “senior European partners”.

    As you yourself admit, this book is rather old. Now, do you really think that the EU-ropean areopagus disapproves of it and deems the writer to be illiberal? And if you dare to oppose the opinion of the single most powerful block of dye-in-the-wool liberals of Europe, what does it make you, Professor?

    Like

      1. “At this point, I’d say ‘define liberalism’”

        A) You, Professor, self-identify as a liberal (in the number of blogposts that’s just yuuuuuuge to list here). If anything, it’s YOU who should be defining the liberal credo here.

        B) ALDE Party, a card-carrying liberal… “block”…, is itself a part of the larger Com literal LibIntern, whose credo is the so-called Oxford Manifesto, still legit after some tweaks and “improvements” over the years.

        C) How does your personal liberal credo (A) relates to the officiall, internationally recognized one (B)?

        Like

      2. I think conservatism is pretty much synonymous with traditionalism, and that one is self-explanatory: preserving and maintaining traditions.

        Liberalism, on the other hand, is hard to define indeed. I suppose the original idea was to give higher priority to the interests of individuals (as perceived by themselves) vs. the collective interests of the tribe/society.

        But as the contradictions resulting from this pursuit grow and become more obvious, it basically devolves, I believe, into pure, idiotic sanctimony. Sort of a cult.

        Like

      3. Liberalism, on the other hand, is hard to define indeed. I suppose the original idea was to give higher priority to the interests of individuals (as perceived by themselves) vs. the collective interests of the tribe/society.

        Mao, if I may, I don’t know from which local political context you argue or look on matters.

        Personally, I have to admit to having been puzzled about the quotidian American usage of liberal. Initially. It didn’t seem to quite fit into my own perception of the term. Although on my own local ground too, I admit that century may matter maybe even a couple of decades may matter, like post 1989 … Partly having late nineteen century German national-liberals in mind here.

        People of course everywhere may be more complex then political labels suggest.

        That said, I would define myself as liberal too, basically, no doubt with some topics leaning more conservative, while on others more socialist. But liberty and equality*, as abstract terms surely still matter. Does fraternity recede once again to national grounds? …
        ********
        Concerning my earlier puzzlement about the US I’d suggest you look up liberty, liberalism vs libertarianism. I may check OED on usuage over the centuries.

        As somewhat Anglophil curiously enough this topic reminds me of British 18th century Criminal Justice Reform. Which may have been triggered by Shakespeare and law in his time.

        Like

      4. “I’d suggest you look up liberty, liberalism vs libertarianism”

        It seems to me, US-style liberalism amounts to an adaptation of classical liberalism (libertarianism); an attempt to adjust to the real-life conditions.

        The idea is still the same: to maximize the compound happiness of the totality of atomized (separately assessed) individuals (including, in some versions, animals), by any means necessary. That’s the mission: to engineer solution to the optimization problem.

        Like

      5. The idea is still the same: to maximize the compound happiness
        I am not toö good in the emotions department. Maybe? I may have deficits to grasp them. In everyday life or people’s expectations. ,,, How does happiness look, express itself?

        At least that is what a frequent feedback I got over my lived decades seems to suggest, (You should be very, very happy but you don’t look like.)

        What is happiness? Satisfaction? Contentness? But yes, I see it is measured by our empirical scientists too in accessing the moods or emotions of the veried national atomized. …

        To return to our topic here, within my limited attention span Yavlinsky may suggest that competition is all there is needed to make Russians happy?

        you finally got me to get interested in “Mao Cheng Ji”, I may have to ask a friend who teaches art in China.

        Like

  6. At the same time, there is no competitive system in the Yabloko party itself – Yavlinsky has been the irreplaceable leader of this party for thirty years.

    Like

    1. “Yavlinsky has been the irreplaceable leader of this party for thirty years.”

      “Это другое. Тут понимать надо”. (тм) 🙂

      Like

    2. thanks… that is a fascinating little bit into the character who has written this book! i suppose he couldn’t find a solution to that set up either…

      Like

  7. “There’s no talk here of democracy or what the Russian people want.”

    There’s some talk in an article by The Atlantic, in an article titled “Putin’s New Law Makes It Illegal To ‘Disrespect’ Russia,” about what the Russian people might sometimes try to say what they want. I might take a stab at finding the law on a Russian government website, or Putin’s website, which Alexander Mercouris recommends. But I found nothing after searching for the last hour or so. I’ll keep looking.

    I thought I had seen some mentions. I did watch a recent Duran episode in which Alexander talked about the Russian version of America’s FARA law, but I find Alexander to be too pro Russia and too pro Trump for my taste. Yes, He’s very informed and that’s why I still watch his shows.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s