28 October 2022
by Arch Tait
Arch Tait reviews Weak Strongman: the Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia by Timothy Frye, Princeton University Press, Princeton, Oxford. Hardback, 2021. 271 pages. £17.53. ISBN 9780691212463.
This widely praised work argues the case for more attention to be paid to what academic research in the social sciences has to contribute to the practical understanding of Russia by policymakers. Timothy Frye, Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is writing during the Trump presidency and before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Aim of the book
The book seeks to place the behaviour of the Putin regime in the comparative context of other ‘personalist autocracies’ of the present (Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines, Hungary, Belarus, Central Asian republics formerly in the USSR). He distinguishes these from single-party autocracies (like China or Singapore), and military-led autocracies (like Thailand). Personalist autocracies are ‘a common type of nondemocratic government led by an individual rather than a party or organization’. Putin came to power as the result not of a coup or a riot but of a ‘flawed though relatively free and fair election in 2000, only to expand his power in subsequent years’, rather like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Personalist autocracies concentrate power in the hands of a single individual, who takes key decisions over personnel and policy. Other characteristic features are reliance on an informal inner circle of decision makers that grows narrower over time, appointment of loyalists rather than specialists to critical positions in the government, creation of new security organizations responsible to the leader, appeals to popular support rather than procedures to legitimate the ruler’s authority, and the appointment of family members to crucial posts. Putin fails only on this last count.
As long-standing democracies become increasingly dysfunctional and less attractive as a model, an outsider comes to power in a highly unequal middle-income country. Facing a disorganized opposition, the ruler rides an economic boom to popularity, which he then uses to dismantle courts and legislatures, intimidate the free press, and discredit political opponents as foreign agents.
With some nuances for local context, Professor Frye comments, this story would be familiar to observers of Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary, to name just a few.
The necessary mandarin
Frye complains that, ‘the experiences of academic Russia hands are not that much different from experts in other areas trying to influence policy in our era of political polarization, hyperpartisanship, and skepticism towards credentials. The popular narrative on Russia is another example of the “death of expertise” in political discourse more generally as expert voices are pushed to the margins of debate.’
Journalism and punditry
While acknowledging the crucial role of journalism, he points to the insidious power of ‘narrative bias’, which he suggests is particularly potent in the case of Russia because of the sheer quality of popular writing on Russia. At its best this provides ‘telling anecdotes, bold investigations, and compelling personal stories that provide richness and detail most social scientists can only envy’. The danger is that the anecdotes can prove only too successful, with readers seduced by narrative power. Whether the information purveyed is representative of larger developments in Russian society can be revealed only by academic research working with large datasets and surveys.
Two besetting sins of writing about Russia today are seeking the explanation of everything in Vladimir Putin’s personality and worldview, or in Russia’s historical legacy. The social scientist is conscious that policy choices most result from ‘difficult trade-offs among and between political elites and the mass public.’ Putin is not the only personalist autocrat having to strike a balance between giving sufficient privilege to elites to get them to implement his chosen policies, but not so much that they can unseat him, or because their flagrant corruption threatens to cause a popular uprising. ‘Policies that enrich cronies frequently come at the expense of the mass public and vice versa.’
This carefully balanced book warns the reader of its own limitations. A comparative, academic perspective can reveal a lot about Russia, but not everything. It sheds more light on domestic than on foreign policy ‘and must be paired with deep knowledge of Russia’. Here the author warns against another trap which graduates of courses in Russian language and literature in particular need to guard against. ‘Want to understand what’s really going on in Russia? Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll find out what Russians really think,’ opines a former head of NATO. A political scientist points out wryly that ‘there is no particular reason to think that Dostoyevsky, for example, reveals something more essential about being Russian—or at least being Russian today—than, say, Russian language hip-hop.’ If we want to understand how Russians think, Frye suggests, a more direct approach is just to ask them in surveys, ‘as I often do’.
‘The most effective types of state coercion are those that work merely by threat. When journalists bury stories out of fear of the repercussions, businesspeople sell their firms under threat of seizure by corrupt state officials, and citizens ignore calls to protest policies they oppose, repression has already done its work.’ Professor Frye admits that the Higher School of Economics where he works ‘walks a narrow line between defending academic integrity and making all the compromises of being a state institution in contemporary Russia.’
It is good to have attention drawn to the fairly recent contribution to the corpus of Western studies of Russia made by Russian scholars themselves. ‘The addition of Russian voices to the conversation,’ the author notes, ‘has broadened the academic debate and encouraged more reflection among non-Russian observers about the biases we bring to the subject.’
The social scientist in Frye notes that on taking office in 2000 Putin faced powerful oligarchs, but they had no organization they could use to limit the power of the president. Putin similarly faced influential regional governors, but their nascent political party, The Fatherland Is All Russia, failed to represent adequately their highly diverse interests and soon dissolved. The oil boom that doubled the size of the Russian economy from 1998 to 2008 ‘gave Putin great spoils to distribute to individual oligarchs and governors, who were then in little mood to form organized groups to check his power’. Putin’s roots in the security services gave them confidence he would protect their interests, as he has consistently done for twenty years now. ‘Putin’s skillful management of conflicts among the elites has been key to his longevity.’ Russian GDP per capita grew to around $27,500 at purchasing power parity by 2018. This placed Russia a bit below Hungary at $28,300, a bit above Argentina at $20,800, but well above China at $16,800, adjusting for local prices.’
To a comparatist, the spectacular seizure of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company was only to be expected: ‘Similar expropriations of energy companies via forced sales or contract renegotiations took place in countries as diverse as Algeria, Bolivia, Chad, Dubai, Ecuador, Senegal and Venezuela in the mid-2000s.’
Did Russian exploitation of the internet put Trump in the White House? Frye notes that ‘Rather than treating the Russian/Wikileaks material as stolen information selectively released by a foreign power to damage a candidate, the US media viewed the material as largely legitimate and kept stories damaging to Clinton in the public eye. For several weeks in the run up to the election, news stories from the Wikileaks material repeatedly played up Clinton’s perceived duplicity and dishonesty—key themes echoed by the Trump campaign.’
‘How popular is Putin?’
Fortunately for autocrats and researchers, Frye notes, the quality of public opinion polling in Russia is quite good for a nondemocracy. He notes that, after suitably sceptical cross-checking, ‘In contrast to the view that Putin’s approval ratings are inflated, we find good evidence that they are not. More generally, Putin’s popularity does not appear to be the result of fear of repression for expressing opposition in a survey.’ During his first twenty years in office, his approval ratings averaged 76 per cent and peaked at 89 per cent in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. Only in the summer of 2020, ‘in the midst of a global pandemic and sharp economic contraction,’ did his rating fall into the high 50s.
Frye denies that Putin is able to manipulate public opinion with ease, He is at the mercy of the vagaries of international commodity prices. In the wake of the 2012 protests against ballot rigging, however, his foreign policy ‘success’ in seizing Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine caused his approval ratings to shoot up from the mid-60s to the high 80s. They remained in the 80 per cent range for four years. The seizure of Crimea was immensely popular with Russians proud of the Kremlin’s ‘newly credible claim to great-power status’. It had, moreover, cost little in terms of Russian lives.
However, in every year, except 2014 at the height of the Crimea crisis, Russians preferred to see their country as one with a high standard of living rather than as a great power. ‘In 2017, 56 percent of Russians favored a Russia with a high standard of living, and 42 percent favored a Russia as a great power.’
A January 2020 poll by the Levada Center found that 82 per cent of Russians believed Ukraine should be an independent state, and just 15 percent believed that ‘Russia and Ukraine must unite into one country.’ The lack of support for unification with Ukraine, Frye tells us, has changed little in annual surveys in Russia since 2008. ‘When asked in an open-ended question to name a politician they trust, 70 percent of the respondents named Putin in 2015, but no more than one-third did so in each month in 2019, and even fewer did so in 2020.’ ‘Putin fatigue’ appeared to be setting in. ‘After a decade of dismal economic performance, economic growth turned sharply negative in summer 2020 due to low oil prices and the shock of the coronavirus. President Putin’s approval rating fell to its lowest level since taking office in 2000, and infighting among the elites appeared to be on the rise as governent largesse declined.’
And so, hoping to replicate the Crimea effect, he invaded Ukraine?
The cost of losing office is high. Researchers found that, between 1946 and 2008, rulers in personalist autocracies who lost power suffered far worse fates than did their counterparts in other types of nondemocracies. Eighty percent ended up in jail or exile, or dead. Comparable figures for rulers in military and one-party autocracies were 41 and 25 per cent respectively. Rulers were far more likely to be replaced by a member of the elites who previously supported them than by a popular revolt. The Putin team will cling to power for the same reason that all personalist autocrats do: the fear of what comes next. The legal and governmental institutions and the press they have weakened afford no protection.
The state of Russia
Frye challenges the view of a persisting Homo sovieticus mentality, and finds that, while Russians are indeed less tolerant of dissenting views, they are no less trusting of others, socially isolated, or unsupportive of democracy. As for honesty, an international team of researchers dropped 17,000 wallets in 355 cities in 40 countries, and found that Russians returned wallets with small amounts of cash at about the same rates as Americans, British, and Canadians, ‘suggesting they are far from being morally stunted after decades of Communism’.
The World Bank estimates Russia’s level of inequality is about the same as in the United States and Turkey.
Frye notes that grand corruption in Russia is massive, and cases of pure theft are not hard to find. ‘Roads get built, but they are expensive in large part due to kickbacks to government officials for receiving contracts. One study from the World Bank found that the cost of building a road is three to six times cheaper in Finland than in Russia despite the almost identical climatic conditions.’
‘Rather than being a sign of strength, an outgrowth of Putin’s worldview, or a result of Russia’s autocratic past, the Kremlin’s increased reliance on repression since 2012 is merely a sign that other tools for keeping Putin in power are failing. Emblematic of this problem is that in 2018, Russia spent more on prisons yet less on prisoners than any other country in Europe.’