In Russia, informal hierarchies tend to prevail over formal rules and procedures, or so we have long thought. Long-established democracies are different: They have traditions and regulations in place that set clear limits on nepotism and clan-based politics.
It is for a reason, then, that many political scientists define Russia’s regime as electoral authoritarianism. What Russian officials call “election” is really a staged performance meant to confer legitimacy on the leader, who is the real decider, not the people. Long-established democracies are different: They have free and fair elections and are not ruled by “families.”
Still, there are indications that president Vladimir Putin will have to restrain his personalist instincts if he is to achieve a peaceful transfer of wealth and power in Russia in the 2020s. The other driver of change in Russia is a clear demand from the grass roots for more impersonal institutions and fair rules.
While the Russian regime is slowly turning into a more rule-based governance system, the American political system, under President Trump’s highly personalized leadership, seems to be going in the opposite direction.
Mr. Putin’s intention to avoid persecution after 2024, when he is required by law to leave the presidency, and his drive to preserve his political legacy that includes fortunes made by the president’s allies, are the likeliest motives behind the Kremlin’s recent institutional shake-up — an announcement in mid-January by Mr. Putin of an array of changes to Russia’s Constitution.
If adopted, the amendments that Mr. Putin introduced would give more powers to the office of the prime minister, the Duma (Russia’s parliament) and the State Council, a body comprising Russia’s regional governors and a number of select top-ranking officials. One widespread theory is that Mr. Putin does intend to leave the presidency in four years but will move on to the State Council or some other vantage point from which he would be able to survey Russia’s entire playing field and ensure an orderly transfer of wealth and power.
If that proves to be his intent, some presidential policymaking powers would be shared with other bodies. Most of the economic decision-making would most likely shift to the cabinet and regional governments. The president would continue to be the commander in chief and the foreign-policy czar.
“Putin is moving away from personalism,” Konstantin Gaaze, a sociologist at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, told me. “After him, no more charismatics at the top.” Russia’s political system, he said, “has to stop producing charisma, just like it did not produce charisma under the midterm and late-term Brezhnev,” a reference to the Soviet Communist Party’s general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union between 1964 and 1982.
“By constraining the powers of the president, empowering the parliament and making himself the ultimate power center beyond the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has injected institutional competition that was not present,” the political scientist Ivan Krastev observed. Institutional or interagency competition may indeed intensify as a result of Putin’s shake-up, but it is also clear that he won’t voluntarily give up his role as the ultimate arbiter.
Yet even this cautious “depersonalization” of the Russian political system is significant and indicative of a long-term change that Russian society is undergoing. Today’s Russians seem to be less and less impressed by the show of strongman leadership at home and Russia’s military might abroad. A demand to be acknowledged as dignified citizens, not obedient subjects, is palpable in numerous protest movements that are ready to stand up to government and police pressure.
The changes that the government has been quietly introducing testify to the fact that the challenge has been accepted. Few Russians would dispute that for an average citizen, interaction with the Russian state is now much more formalized and efficient than even five years ago.
In today’s one-window government service offices, citizens get a slip, pour themselves a coffee, wait a few minutes in a clean waiting area and soon get their requests processed quickly and efficiently. It is a far cry from the time when people had to bribe their way into getting a passport or to get some paperwork done fast and easily required going through an unpredictable, unpleasant interaction with a rude person behind thick glass in a stale government office.
It is important to understand, though, that none of this is meant to make Russia’s governance system less authoritarian. It is meant to make it less corrupt, chaotic, personalized and thus prone to human error. Replacing people with algorithms is a right-on way to achieve that goal. Mikhail Mishustin, a former technocrat who headed Russia’s tax service and was one of the leading officials responsible for bringing the state into the digital age, has become Russia’s new prime minister. His mandate is to cement the system, not to develop it.
Valorization of family and clan values over the interests of the individual or the public has been a feature of Russian life ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, as Mr. Putin’s overarching goal appears to be achieving a peaceful transfer of power and wealth, he seems to be reining in clan interests and even some features of his personalist rule. What does not change is the value he places on cohesion among the ranks over any individual political stance. He has always made a point of saying that a traitor is worse than an open enemy.
Against this background, it is all the more amazing that America’s conservative establishment acquiesces to the fact that not just a politician but a family is running its country’s administration. The speed with which President Trump managed to turn a political party into a clan is eye-opening. Republicans are learning that to get re-elected, they must accept that unity of the ranks is more important than any individual political stance. They now need to defend President Trump at all costs and, indirectly, adopt Mr. Putin’s stance that a traitor is worse than an enemy.
Of course, Russia is as far from achieving a fully rule-based political system complete with separation of powers as the United States is from descending into a personalist autocracy. What we are seeing is a convergence of sorts: Russia’s authoritarianism becoming less personalized while the American system of democratic governance acquires more familial and clan-based features.
At the end of the 1960s, the Soviet physicist and staunch dissident Andrei Sakharov was developing a theory of political convergence, by which he meant the gradual drawing closer together of the socialist and capitalist systems. History has yet to prove him right or wrong. The convergence we are seeing now is of a different kind: The Russian form of civil governance underpinned by family, even tribal values, is developing some rule-based features, while the American system, based on checks and balances, slides deeper by the month into a form of personal leadership that tests the rule of law.
Read the original text at The New York Times.