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 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.