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The Little Putsch That Wasn't
25 June 2023: A TL;DRussia Special Edition
In what has become one of the most overused clichés, Pushkin once wrote that “a Russian rebellion is senseless and merciless”. Maybe it’s time to scratch that last part.
I’ll be honest: Even before it collapsed, Evgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection never made much sense to me. I said as much on Twitter when the story first broke, and I reiterated the point in the first interview I was asked to give on the uprising, for Al Jazeera English on the evening of Friday, 23 June:
I said it again to CNN in the early hours of Saturday, 24 June (and yes, they got my title wrong):
I then tried to reiterate broadly the same set of points — in a bit more detail — for NPR’s Weekend Edition the same day:
I’m sure I things wrong, of course, and I’m certain people will point my mistakes out to me in a kind and constructive manner. (I’ve already received one lengthy and rather amusing email calling me “a literate nincompoop” for failing to draw attention to the fact that this whole thing was orchestrated by “the Jews”.)
Moving on, though, it’s worth thinking a bit about the future, which I tried to do in a piece published Sunday at CEPA, arguing that the extension of Putin’s model of rent-based governance to a wartime economy was fraught with the danger of the kind of events we just witnessed. Thus:
Prigozhin has brought the Russian elite face to face with the uncertainty of their future. The path they’re currently on leads to more violence and incalculable risks. The obvious alternative – for Putin to try to break the autonomy of the elite altogether and rely exclusively on coercion to gain compliance – is hardly a happier prospect. Either way, business-as-usual is no longer an option.
It’s also worth pondering, though, what would have happened if Prigozhin had succeeded, and Putin had fallen. As I tried to summarize in yet another Twitter thread, the key question in any change of regime isn’t who has power, but how they got it, and what the resulting incentives are.
If Putin leaves office smoothly — ie, through a negotiated process, in which he cedes power without a fight — the key implication is that whoever takes power will retain the full apparatus of control that Putin currently enjoys. Thus, a negotiated handover of power would give Putin’s successor complete control over the media, the coercive apparatus, the Duma, etc etc. The economy is a different story, about which more in a bit. By contrast, a chaotic transfer of power — in which Putin is either forced out violently, or flees without time to negotiate — makes it less likely that the successor obtains full control of state apparatus. In a chaotic transition, the successor may have to battle and/or negotiate to obtain the loyalty of key parts of the system and would be wary of threats from within — yielding either greater autonomy (to buy people off) or a lot of repression to keep them in line.
The next question is how the successor is selected. Is there a process within the elite that builds consensus, or is there a mad dash to the Kremlin to see who gets there first? If the elite settles on a candidate, the successor will, again, likely enjoy a degree of power and influence similar to that wielded by Putin up to now. He would in turn be expected to provide the same wealth and privilege that the elite currently enjoy, if not more. If the elite fracture or don’t have time to settle on a candidate, the successor will have either to buy the elite into the new regime, or else push them out, with unpredictable consequences. The first few weeks and months would likely be critical. Oddly, an elite split is the most likely opportunity for some kind of a democratic opening. Facing a tenuous hold on power, or hoping to challenge the initial successor, various factions may seek a claim to public legitimacy via elections. If a fractured elite turn to the public for support, the media and political party space will pluralize — though not necessarily democratize. No one would be fully in control of the process, and whoever “wins” would still be on shaky ground.
Coming back to the economy, Putin’s control relies on tacit understandings and the elite’s faith that he can provide flows of wealth and patronage. A successor would have to reestablish that faith to gain elite compliance. Until faith in the patronage power of the successor is established, expect to see elites hoard resources and hedge their bets, potentially investing in a variety of political and media projects. Again, there is an opportunity for at least limited pluralism.
What about the public? Putin’s sway is created by the consensus around millions of kitchen tables and water coolers, predicated in part on the lack of an alternative. Not supporting Putin has thus become a mark of abnormality. A successor would not immediately be so lucky. Even if there is a managed transition that maintains the monopoly on media, politics and coercion, Putin’s departure will give Russians space to disagree about politics again, with less fear of social ostracism. Thus, even an autocratic successor would need time to reestablish control over hearts and minds, again with uncertain outcomes.
The balance of probabilities is that, after a period of time, Russia will revert to a regime very much like the one it has now, even if it looks and feels different for a while. That’s because it is easier for people to reestablish old expectations than to create new ones. But probability is not inevitability, and depending on the process of departure and succession, just about anything is possible — from civil war to gradual democratization. The key is to keep an open mind as things play out.
My point in writing all of that wasn’t that I thought Prigozhin’s putsch would be successful. Rather, I wanted to try to shift attention away from the personalities and towards the more structural questions of power and politics — and because, even as Putin has survived this challenge — that doesn’t mean that he is fully in the clear.