Benefits of Autocracy

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President Vladimir Putin has managed democracy in a manner former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev must envy. Although the West hoped Gorbachev was a democratizer, he in fact was at most a soft moderate in a calcified totalitarian state. When democratic-like reforms were instituted, Gorbachev wailed in disbelief at his "electorate's" lack of patriotic discipline. The end result was nominal institutional change mixed with a tint of populism, swelling discontent from the right and left and a helpless Gorbachev alone in the middle, with only anachronistic Soviet rhetoric and Western sympathy to comfort his egress. Seventeen years later, Putin has accomplished what Gorbachev attempted to construct -- democratic centralism.

The underlying premise of Putin's agenda relies on the assumption that the people are either ignorant or apathetic. Those who justify Putin's actions do so with a cost-benefit logic. They argue that Putin cannot afford Russia being steered off course by the electoral vagaries of liberal democracy with such a presumably unsophisticated and ill-informed electorate. Lenin articulated a similar logic.

In fact, during the presidential election campaign, Russian voters were treated as if they were ignorant, required to accept as a given that Dmitry Medvedev was their popular choice of the electorate. Autocratic power has its benefits.

Given Putin's game, there are two costly questions on the table for the future of Russia: how to attract competent and trustworthy individuals to whom day-to-day decision-making can be delegated and how to set up effective system of oversight and sanctions for such individuals. Gorbachev hoped to re-engineer a monopoly of power with a hint of humanism to offset the social and economic costs of decades of Soviet repression and economic stagnation. When it failed miserably, an opportunistic Boris Yeltsin rode upon the wave of democratic rhetoric to re-engineer his image from Soviet bureaucrat to modern reformer. Yeltsin's failures were so damaging to the country that a minority clique chose a KGB technocrat as his replacement. To guarantee that the costs of the presidential transfer of power would be minimal, Putin was afforded egregious state support and nominal election competition.

Putin began his first term in office by proclaiming a war on corruption and then systematically entrenched the entire system of governance into a tsarist-like hierarchy. This was justified as a necessary remedy to eight years of Yeltsin's failed presidency. But eight years later, what we have now is a very illiberal democracy. As an offset, a war on terrorism, skyrocketing profits from rising oil prices, and a U.S. presidency full of foreign policy failures has afforded Putin enough international benefits to buy time for dealing with growing domestic problems.

Governing a democratic state necessitates an objective cost-benefit evaluation of the effects different power centers have on the functioning of the state. Seven super-governors appointed by Putin to rein in more than 80 appointed governors has only led to even deeper bureaucratic malaise. In the short term it may have seemed efficient, but this was strategic myopia.

Medvedev can take comfort from the fact that he is inheriting an efficient patronage system, but he must fret about the uncertainty over whom to pay this patronage at the end of the day.

Assessing the various rules of the game that influence the behavior of the political elite and bureaucracy would seem a priority for Medvedev's new government. But Medvedev must weigh the costs and benefits of extending real constitutional and legal rights to the people. Does he really want to give the citizens the ability to check the coercive power of the state?

This requires a paradigm shift in the relation of tolerance to repression. Gorbachev's reforms in the mid-'80s began this shift, but he quickly reversed course when such rights as freedom of speech cost him blanket condemnations. Yeltsin literally collapsed under such pressure. Putin had no interest in repeating these fatal mistakes. From inauguration to heir-appointment, Putin systematically curbed the domain of these rights without formally changing the institutional framework by which they are guaranteed. Like Stalin, he received popularity points for political savvy from the same electorate for whom this savvy carries such a high price in terms of civil rights.

Time is a whimsical bedfellow. Putin's autocracy has derived huge benefits from natural resource rents, but this comes at the expense of shrinking real support. He can manipulate the results at the polls for only so long before his mercenary electorate chooses someone else. For Gorbachev it was Yeltsin. For Yeltsin it was Putin.

We know that Putin understands his potential vulnerability very well because he chose Medvedev -- another political unknown -- as his successor. For the time being, Russians chalk this up more as an asset than a liability. But Medvedev and Putin must be concerned that the electorate will soon add up the long-term costs. This explains their fear of tolerating public choice.

Jeffrey S. Lindstrom, a doctoral candidate of politics and economics at Claremont Graduate University, was the director of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Vladivostok from 2000 to 2007.