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Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2004

The Putin Model Is Doomed to Fail

By Andrei Piontkovsky

MOSCOW -- Yesterday's Russian presidential election was another triumph for Vladimir Putin's brand of "managed democracy." The campaign and election followed the pattern of the parliamentary vote three months ago, which the OSCE characterized as "free, but unfair."

That's a rather mild description of an election where there was no independent media, no independent judiciary and no independent sources for the financing of political parties. Direct vote rigging was not considered significant by many observers. Some estimated that it accounted for not more than 2% or 3% of the votes. But it was enough to deprive the liberal party Yabloko (headed by Grigory Yavlinsky), of its seats in the parliament by lowering its total below the 5% threshold. needed to qualify for representation in the Duma.

The same techniques were deployed effectively in the presidential campaign to similarly devastating effect. Under these circumstances opposition politicians including Mr. Yavlinsky or Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov decided not to run. The party headed by maverick nationalist Vladimir Zirinovsky put forward his bodyguard as a presidential contender. The campaign swiftly became a farce.

To restore some respectability to the electoral process, the administration induced several second-rate politicians to enter the contest. They realized that a real problem could result from a low voter turnout. Russian electoral law specifies that if voter turnout falls below 50% of qualified voters, the election is to be declared invalid. The turnout for the Duma elections in December was officially tabulated at 54%. Some independent observers estimated it to have been considerably less.

Voter turnout for presidential elections historically has been higher than parliamentary ones. This was the case during the dramatic presidential elections of 1996 and 2000 and again last night. However voter apathy has become increasingly evident and federal and local authorities are attempting to mobilize massive administrative and public relations resources to ensure a sufficient turnout. Voters are lured to polling stations by promises of free rock-concert tickets. Persons with health problems may not be taken to hospitals without first proving that they have already voted.

So Mr. Putin gets four more years of power that will be almost unlimited by legislature, judiciary or tradition. An obedient parliament may even change the Russian constitution to allow Mr. Putin to rule as long as he wishes. But what comes next?

President Putin is not giving speeches or participating in debates as an advocate of ideas. He is acting in the tradition of the Russian czars, who didn't explain their plans and objectives to their subjects. The recent appointment of a nonentity as prime minister also obscures his objectives. But if he were indeed obliged to reveal his ambitions he could formulate them in one key word -- modernization.

Everything in Mr. Putin's record suggests he sincerely believes that Russia must make a great leap forward to catch up with leading Western powers. But he is deeply convinced that this task should be realized through the model of authoritarian modernization. This is a model of bureaucratic capitalism with a very strong role for the state.

It is capitalism run by police and pencil-pushers with the father of the nation in charge. It's the replacement of Yeltsin-era oligarchs with new "patriotic" ex-security service operatives, and more broadly with that huge collective oligarchy -- the bureaucracy -- with its armed detachments, the so-called power agencies. Rather than correct the defects of Russian capitalism -- the merger and criminalization of money and power and institutionalized corruption -- it only intensifies them.

This kind of model is incapable of ensuring stable growth. It will not allow Russia to overcome its terrible social stratification or to achieve the breakthrough needed before a postindustrial society can emerge here.

It dooms Russia to economic degradation, marginalization and ultimately to collapse. It cannot drag on for decades like the Stalin or Brezhnev models.

This model has been implemented with limited success in some South Asia and Latin American states, but Russia is different. Bureaucratic capitalism for those states was a sort of transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one; we face a transition from the Soviet Union's industrial economy to a post-industrial one. This model cannot achieve that.

When the regime controls everything, it loses control of the situation because it stops getting feedback from the public. It becomes blind and deaf, and accordingly, helpless. While oil prices remain high, Russia may enjoy the illusion of stability. As soon as Iraq's oil reaches the world market, the time of "crazy oil dollars" will be over. By 2005, I suspect we will see the collapse of the economic stability myth. Another potential threat to the regime's stability are its own geopolitical obsessions. The Russian political class is now seized with the idea of "a domination on the post-Soviet space," and the restoration of a "liberal empire." Russian politicians fail to understand that their neo-imperial impulses can elicit nothing but rejection in the former Soviet republics. A new "assertive" policy on the post-Soviet space will bring the Putin regime only new foreign policy disappointments and frustrations.

Sure, 2004 will become known as the Year of Putinism. But in a not very distant future the regime will face serious structural and existential problems for which it has no answer.

See also:

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2004

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