How to think about a post-Putin future?

March 31, 2023
  • Andrei Yakovlev

    Visiting scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

Andrei Yakovlev believes that it is necessary to begin to develop a new socio-political and economic model for Russia after Putin. At this stage, we can talk about an expert-led analytical process featuring the participation of representatives of various elite and professional groups.

Russians standing up for their rights in the very recent past. Pictured: rally in Khabarovsk in support of Khabarovsk Krai Governor Sergei Furgal, August 8, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
Polls, shaped by state propaganda and the increasingly harsh repression of opponents of the war, give the Putin regime the illusion of stability. However, recent talk in Russia about the "catastrophic consequences of the country's disintegration" (including Putin's speeches on this topic) reflects a serious internal split in Russian society and within the elites.

One can argue about the likelihood of "disintegration" scenarios, but it is clear that the exasperation generated in society by aggressive state propaganda aimed at increasing support for the war will inevitably turn inward — increasing confrontation between different groups within the elites and society.

The accumulation of such internal tensions is fraught with the potential for a social explosion that could turn into a civil war. Given that Russia has nuclear weapons, such a development would have grave consequences at home and pose a serious threat to the rest of the world. To prevent such scenarios, it is now necessary to think about realistic models for Russia’s sociopolitical and economic order and its interaction with the world after the war and after Putin.

What is preventing the emergence of a positive vision of the future?

Grigory Yudin's recent interview is a good starting-point for developing possible models for the future. It contains a number of important ideas worthy of detailed discussion. Contrary to the dominant view that "imperial politics" is predetermined, Yudin argues that different trajectories were possible in Russia in the 1990s, given the ideological alternatives then available. While agreeing that there were good reasons for the "resentment" prevalent in mass consciousness, he offers an adequate and well-formulated assessment of the mistakes in Western policy toward Russia in the 1990s and provides an alarming but very realistic reconstruction of the ideas that were swirling around in Putin's head.

The most significant parts of this interview, in my opinion, are two theses. The first is about the need to draw a line between Putin and Russia as a whole (recognizing, of course, that Russia is far from united). If it is really impossible to come to an agreement with Putin (because for him the current war can have no end), then it is necessary to do so with the various groups within the "rest of Russia" — if the goal is for Russia not to sink into the chaos of civil war at the end of the war (and after Putin), but rather to move to some stable new state. In this context, the second thesis — the opposition between "grievance" (upon which Putin has consistently reinforced and exploited for years, driving society into a dead end) and what Yudin in his interview termed "hope" — is important. For my part, I would define this concept as "a positive vision of the future."

Developing a vision of the future for the country and for society has traditionally been one of the key functions of the national elite. At the same time, it is important to understand what kind of future the highest echelons of the Russian elite envision. For quite a long time — indeed, throughout the 1990s and 2000s — these people tried to become part of the "global elite." But the events of the Arab Spring (including the personal stories of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi) and the mass protests in Russia in 2011-2012 caused them to fear any future scenarios involving political or economic liberalization.

Against this backdrop, the only approach acceptable to the upper class was the model of the "besieged fortress," which ensured that Putin and his "inner circle" could preserve their power — albeit at the expense of virtually all other social groups. For at least ten years now, the authorities have been engaged in a consistent effort to destroy any ideas and models that could become an alternative to the "besieged fortress" and could give different social groups the very "hope" Yudin speaks of. They have done this either by discrediting them or by appropriating them and preventing them from growing.

This policy has inevitably led to the radicalization of the opposition — who have made it their main goal to "fight the regime," but without a clear, convincing, and constructive alternative proposal for society and for the elites. A recent interview by Yuri Dud with Alexei Navalny's comrade-in-arms Maria Pevchikh is quite revealing in this regard, providing numerous examples of the corruption of Russia's top bureaucrats and the cooperation of oligarchs with the Putin regime, but offering no answers to questions about the possible place in post-Putin Russia of current officials and big businessmen.

Putin's shrinking social base among the elites — and the lack of an alternative

As a result, the current situation is somewhat paradoxical. Unlike the annexation of Crimea, which produced a broad "Crimean consensus" in Russian society, the war with Ukraine has caused a clear split in society. One can debate the proportions of outspoken opponents and active supporters of the war, respectively, but it is clear that there is no broad "consensus" in support of the war among Russian citizens. This is indirectly confirmed by the steady intensification of repressions against those who in one way or another declare an anti-war stance.

There is also an obvious tension within the elites, since for most — if not the overwhelming majority of — businesspeople and civil servants the war is associated with clear losses and costs (confirmation of this can be found in the recent comments of Alexandra Prokopenko). Recent criminal cases against federal ministers (Alexei Ulyukaev and Mikhail Abyzov), regional governors (Nikita Belykh, Vyacheslav Geiser, etc.), billionaires (Gleb Fetisov, the Magomedov brothers, etc.), and dozens of mayors of major cities, as well as a series of sudden deaths of top managers of state-owned companies in 2022, have created an atmosphere of fear among officials and major businessmen.

But at the same time, many of them clearly understand that there is an absolute dead end ahead for the country. Over the past year, there has been a serious narrowing of Putin's social base among the elites, making the internal political situation unstable — for all the stability the regime has demonstrated externally.

In the coming months, this situation will certainly be influenced by developments at the front. Nevertheless, there has as yet been no elite split because the only alternatives to the Putin regime that elites see are, on the one hand, the founder of the Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, with his undisguised use of violence, and the further movement of the Russian Federation toward the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” model; and, on the other hand, Alexei Navalny and his supporters, whose rise to power would likely lead to extensive lustration in the state apparatus and the seizure of property from those entrepreneurs who can be considered “regime collaborators.”
"In the end, while Putin's actions do not fill the business and bureaucratic elite with joy, they consider the alternatives to be worse for them — even with the ongoing war."
This is reinforced by the personal sanctions imposed by the EU and the US — which are in fact pushing members of the elite back into Putin's "besieged fortress."

By scaring the general public with Prigozhin while also trying to split the opposition, the regime seeks to entrench the current balance, ensuring that the top elite can prolong their stay in power. However, maintaining such a state of mind will cause further downward spiraling. A clear illustration of this process is the transformation of the Izborsk Club into a mainstream movement that has taken place before our eyes — when just a few years ago, this club was perceived, ideologically speaking, highly marginal.

How can a catastrophic scenario be avoided?

In my opinion, a catastrophic scenario can be prevented if a sufficient number of people in the elite and among the thinking part of society can envision a constructive alternative to the current model. It is obvious that many other factors will be required for the practical implementation of such an alternative. New leaders must appear on the political scene who are ready to voice such an alternative model and able to win support among the elites and in society.

Moreover, such an "alternative proposal" can hardly be perceived as realistic if it is not supported by the "collective West." (This is a separate problem, since neither the EU nor the US seems to have even an inkling of a strategic vision of a possible model of relations with Russia after Putin, and instead their policy is "reactive" — the West has been imposing certain measures in response to the actions of the Kremlin.)

However, none of these factors will matter without a set of ideas that can consolidate society and provide elites with a sane alternative to the current model.

The difficulty with developing such ideas lies in the fact that they cannot be limited to general words about democracy and the market economy. You cannot step into the same river twice: the hopes for a better life in a democratic country with a market economy that characterized the late 1980s were an important factor in enabling Russians to weather the crisis of the 1990s, but this came at a price. The hopes of that time were based on the naive ideas of the majority of Russian citizens about the economic and political processes in modern society — which allowed for their manipulation by the elites and set the stage for serious disappointment on the part of society, in turn causing setbacks for Russia’s democratic institutions over the next two decades.

In this respect, the current situation in Russia is fundamentally different from Spain in the mid-1970s, where the “Moncloa Pact” became possible, or Poland in the late 1980s, with its “round table” between the Jaruzelski government and the opposition. In both cases, the elites and society saw an alternative model successfully being implemented in neighboring countries of Western Europe.
"Today, given Russia's own experience in the 1990s, as well as the many real problems that developed countries face, neither the elites nor society have such a model in front of their eyes."
As such, forming a convincing alternative to the existing regime will require not general words and slogans, but clear answers to numerous specific questions about the structure of socio-political and economic life "after Putin" — so that both the elites and active representatives of other social groups understand how everything will work and can envision a place for themselves in the new model.

The questions to be answered relate to:

  • Relations between Russia and the world after the war: How exactly will the country’s sovereignty be manifested in the new model? How will relations with its nearest neighbors be built? How will relations be built with the “collective West” and with China?

  • A new political model: It should feature political and civil freedoms and mandatory transfers of power. That being said, it is not obvious to me that a transition to a parliamentary republic, about which many opposition figures are currently talking, is necessarily required. Here, too, the question of lustration will inevitably arise — will the most active figures of the Putin regime be permitted to participate in political activities or barred from doing so?

  • Relations between the center and the regions, with answers to the question about the degree of decentralization and federalization — Vladimir Pastukhov has serious arguments in favor of decentralization and Dmitry Nekrasov has reasonable doubts.

  • Economic model: the role and place of state companies and state corporations; the status and assets of oligarchic businesses; and opportunities for new players, including foreigners, to enter Russian markets. A discussion about Western sanctions and the conditions for getting them lifted must also inevitably be had; this intersects with the question about Russia's “relations with the world.”

  • Social model: in what way and by what means those social obligations that the regime is now meeting and that no government can afford to refuse to meet will be financed; mechanisms for reducing social inequality and implementing the principles of social justice.

  • The role and place of the army and security forces.

Obviously, this list can be significantly expanded and supplemented. But no less important than a discussion of these specifics is an answer to the question of who will be the guarantor, in the new model, of the rights with which different groups of stakeholders will be endowed. The essential point here is that in the event of a successful transition to a new sociopolitical and economic model (which is not yet guaranteed), Russia will remain, to use the concept developed by Douglas North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast, a "limited-access order" — with a different, broader ruling coalition than at present, yes, but nevertheless with an inevitable reliance on sources of rent that keep key elite groups from using violence. This means that already at the stage of constructing the new model, it is necessary to have a clear idea of possible sources of the rents that would ensure its relative stability.

A separate big question: Who today can start the process of developing a new socio-political and economic model for Russia after Putin that would be acceptable to the main groups in the elite and in society? Given the context of growing repression, any public action in this direction by the elites is currently extremely unlikely.
"Initiatives of this kind on the part of the opposition do not seem realistic at the moment, since they mostly fail to take into account the interests of those social groups within Russia that do not want war, and with whose participation a broad anti-Putin coalition could be formed."
At the same time, it is obvious that real positive changes in Russia are possible only if there is a consensus between the thinking part of society and the reasonable segment of the elite. Reaching such a consensus is a political process that can hardly begin under Putin. But the absence of basic ideas for moving toward such a consensus threatens to plunge the country into chaos when Putin is gone.

In the current circumstances, the development of a new socio-political and economic model for Russia after Putin can begin as an expert-led analytical process with the non-public inclusion of representatives of various elite and professional groups and with a discussion of the above questions. A search for adequate answers to all these questions will only be possible as part of a dialogue between those who are concerned about the future of Russia and who are able to hear and respect the opinions of others.
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