April 30, 2021, 8:42 a.m.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, is often portrayed in the West as a three-dimensional chess grandmaster who plays the world with one hand behind his shirtless back. No other world leader has evoked as many ideas as he. Small tidal waves of ink have spilled into Putin's history and that of Russia in an attempt to answer the question, what does Putin want?
But what if Putin isn't everything? What if he's not as special as he likes to be? This is the argument put forward by Columbia University professor Timothy Frye in his new book "Weak Strong Man: The Limits to Power in Putin's Russia" which suggests that Putin may have more in common with his authoritarian counterparts, than we believe. Many of his actions are not the result of his worldview, but rather the complicated compromises politicians everywhere have to make. In authoritarian regimes, these compromises involve paying off elites while being careful not to fuel the economy and risk popular discontent. Hold elections to make sure you win, but don't be too obvious and undermine your legitimacy. Let some disagreement prevent a pressure cooker scenario, but not so much that it challenges your performance.
This ever-changing calculus is most evident in Russian domestic politics, where, as the book's title suggests, Putin is powerful, but his rule is not absolute. As in many authoritarian countries, the Kremlin responds to public opinion because it is easier to rule with a thin veneer of legitimacy than it is not to have none at all.
Frye cites work by Russian researchers Andrei Yakovlev and Anton Kazun, who found seven cases between 2017 and 2019 of authorities pulling back in the face of public discontent. For example, Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was arrested in 2019 on drug charges that are widely considered to be politically motivated. His arrest sparked an outcry from public figures and other journalists, including those who worked for state television. Golunov was released in an unprecedented climb in a matter of days. Whatever the real reason for his initial arrest, the Kremlin clearly concluded that it was not worth causing any major riot.
The autocratic balancing act has become all the more difficult the longer Putin remains in office. In recent years, its approval ratings have gradually fallen, and authorities have increasingly sought to eradicate potential threats to the regime – such as the obvious decision to poison opposition leader Alexey Navalny last year.
The poisoning of Navalny is just a dramatic case amid renewed crackdown on civil society in Russia. Frye's book as a roadmap to autocracy couldn't be more topical. On the subject of civil society, his comparative approach gives a grim preview of where Russia could go. Frye cites works by scholar Christian Davenport in which he describes in detail how repression in authoritarian states leads to increased repression, a spiral that makes it increasingly difficult for the regime to address the underlying causes of public unrest. With so much Western discourse about Russia centered on the president himself rather than the system in which he operates, it is assumed that everything will be fine if Putin leaves office. However, Frye points to a study by Hein Goemans at the University of Rochester that examined the fate of non-democratic governments over a period of six decades. Autocrats were followed by democratic governments in only 16 percent of the cases. "Unless the political system changes dramatically, anyone who rules Russia will face many of the same political compromises that the Putin administration has occupied over the past twenty years," Frye writes.
However, it is not all bleak. Frye notes that Russia is wealthier and has a better educated population than the average autocracy. This and a relatively high degree of urbanization, a homogeneous population and a younger generation that looks more open and western than their elders could serve as building blocks for a more democratic style of government.
One of Frye's motives for writing the book was to showcase the rich social science research by Russian and international scholars, not much of which has reached the public consciousness. "When I saw the quality of the discussion on Russia becoming increasingly politicized and polarized, it was really important to me to get this work out to try to bring the temperature down a bit," Frye said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy .
Throughout the book, Frye gently debunks the idea, often repeated by commentators, that Russians support Putin because of an innate propensity for strong leaders. By scouring poll data, Frye shows that, for all his bragging rights, Putin is judged by the results of his political decisions and that Russians have a far more nuanced view of their president than is often assumed. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example, brought his approval rating to 80 percent, a gain that was decimated by the 2018 decision to raise the retirement age.
Frye's is full of research and intertwined with anecdotes from his own travels over the years – like targeting a clumsy KGB honey trap in Soviet Uzbekistan, an approach he rejected – Frye's is one contemporary and entertaining read that breaks up a heated conversation to provide an evidence-based debunking of stereotypes about Putin and Russia.