Weak prospects for Russia’s democratization

By Wolfgang Merkel

It has been 13 months since Russia, under Putin, began its war of aggression on Ukraine. Since 24 February 2022, there have been debates, sometimes heated arguments, about the causes that contributed to this escalation, how the war can be ended, and what the consequences will be for the warring parties and Europe as a whole. For this discussion, a look at the power relations within Russia is indispensable: how extreme has the regime under Putin become, and what are the prospects for the country?

Large parts of the Russian opposition, but also voices in the West, now classify Putin’s Russia as fascist. What remains unnoticed is that there are different ways of reading fascism. One is the analytical direction taken by historians and political scientists regarding German National Socialism and Italian fascism, for example. The other is the political and popular instrumentalization of the term. As a simple polemical term, fascism loses its analytical contours, then ranges from Hitler to the AfD. Historians distinguish more precisely between different variants of fascism. Italian fascism, for example, lacks the mass-murderous antisemitism of the Holocaust. The Holocaust distinguishes National Socialism from the other fascist regimes of the interwar period in both Western and Eastern Europe.

A closer look reveals more differences than similarities between Putin’s regime and Hitler’s Germany. No doubt, Putin’s territorial revisionism, nationalism, and personalism can be found in Italian fascism and German National Socialism as well. But Putin’s nationalism is different: it is not racist, but political and multi-ethnic. A cardinal difference is that in Putin’s regime there are no systematic racist extermination actions, as Hitler organized against the German and European Jews after 1938 (Reichspogromnacht) and especially after 1941 (Wannsee Conference). Internally, the Russian regime has no will to participate in extermination based on racism (like National Socialism) or mass shootings (like Stalinism). To create the appearance of formal legal action, non-totalitarian autocratic regimes are themselves subject to a certain formal principle of legality in their repression. This includes elections, even if they have been increasingly manipulated after 2000. In research on political regimes, this phenomenon is described as “electoral authoritarianism” (Andreas Schedler). Behind the sham democratic façade, Putin has established an increasingly repressive regime. It is intimidating, targeted, and effective, but does not have the mass-murderous character on the inside that was evident in National Socialism, China’s early Maoist regime, or the totalitarian regime of the mass murderer Pol Pot in Cambodia from 1975-1979.

Another important difference between Putin’s rule and the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany: Italian fascists, and especially the German Nazis, first mobilized their followers and then organized society. Putin did the opposite: he demobilized society and encouraged its political apathy. Russia thus belongs to a different type of autocratic regime. Putin’s rule knew no early fascist social movements, no directed mass organizations nor social marches. We see a different political dynamic. Mobilization on the one hand, demobilizations on the other. Fascism and National Socialism also had an orientation towards the future. They wanted to create – not unlike Leninism-Stalinism – a new type of man. The same does not exist in Putin’s largely de-ideologized regime of power, neither in “theory” nor in practice.

The void of ideological legitimacy opens up another view on his regime. While Yeltsin’s reign was an anarchic kleptocracy, Putin and his circle transformed it into a classical rent economy, as we know it from petro-states in the so-called “Third World”. State classes were formed that used the coercive means of the state to gain control or even “ownership” of raw materials and resources and enriched themselves. It is not only the dictator himself but the state classes he created whose personal fate is tied to the fate of the regime. They cannot give up their state capture unless they give up their political and economic existence themselves. This stabilizes the regime more than the Western dreams of regime change want to admit.

Historical references to fascism 100 years ago do not bring any new insights into Putin’s regime today. It is possible in principle to make a comparison with fascist leaders, but one cannot equate Putin with Hitler, as is sometimes done in the current debate. Putin is a war criminal and he attacked Ukraine, but he did not set the world on fire and organize a Holocaust like Hitler.

The comparison with Stalinism that is sometimes made is also misleading. Stalinism was ideologically, socially, and institutionally organized. The economy was nationalized.

In Putin’s Russia, an oligarchic capitalism has prevailed, whose actors first brought Putin to power. Twenty years later, the balance of power has reversed. Now it is Putin who orchestrates the oligarchs according to his power calculations.

What Putin’s regime also lacks is a firm institutional underpinning. This can be seen in, among other things, Putin’s lack of a succession plan. Under Stalinism, it was clear how Stalin’s succession would be regulated; the Politburo and the party statute provided people, procedures, and institutions for this. Putin’s succession, on the other hand, is just as unclear as the form of political rule that could follow him. Personalist dictatorships without an institutional underpinning have always had a succession problem if they were not organized along dynastic lines. This will probably happen to Russia as well after Putin.

Putin’s regime can be typologically classified – without having to use the category of fascism – on the basis of six key elements. First, the regime is revisionist in terms of the country’s territorial borders; second, it is multi-ethno-nationalist in that it increasingly emphasizes the actual or imagined greatness of the Russian nation in history; third, it is a personalized regime tailored to President Putin; fourth, it is increasingly repressive internally; fifth, it is a demobilized system in which, unlike fascism, society is atomized and has renounced being organized through the regime; and sixth, the regime has no ideology of rule of its own or even an visionist idea of its rule. It is based on political, military, and secret police power. It instrumentalizes the judiciary and appropriates ad hoc “mentalities” (Juan Linz) such as patriotism, antiliberalism, and historical myths as needed.

The occasione (Machiavelli) for a catch-up ideologization as an instrument of rule appears to have been missed. The war of aggression against Ukraine, which appears hardly glorious for Russia, is not suitable for this. However, the longer the war lasts, the more the authoritarian regime is likely to turn into a more totalitarian one. Nevertheless, totalitarian regimes need an ideology and vision. Both are missing and cannot easily be invented for a regime 23 years after its beginnings.

Bleak prospects for democracy

By democratic, liberal, and international law standards, these six characteristics makes today’s Russia a deeply autocratic regime. It is difficult to judge how long it can hold out and whether the path to a democratic future – far from today’s perspective – seems possible. For without meaning to, Putin has tied his political and physical fate to the outcome of the war against Ukraine. If Russia loses the war in the eyes of the army leadership and the secret services, or even the population, the regime and Putin himself could also end. But a personalized dictatorship without the dictator is hardly conceivable. What is likely then, however, is not the democratization of the country at all, but a change to another form of autocratic rule. The intermediate stage of a Hobbesian world of secession and civil wars is also not excluded between the transition from one autocratic regime to another.

Before the war of aggression against Ukraine, Russia had an implicit social contract. Putin promised the population growing prosperity in exchange for no opposition, including criminal enrichment for oligarchs close to the regime. The invasion of Ukraine, the war crimes, the protracted course of the war, the international ostracism as well as the Western economic sanctions endanger this authoritarian social contract, if they do not actually end it. The (still) lack of mass protest in Russia has a lot to do with the demobilized society, in which there are singular heroic protest actions from the intelligentsia in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but no mass protest mobilization.

Approval of the dictator also plays a role. It is obviously much higher and more stable than Western observers have predicted. However, the situation can change quickly. If the war of aggression against Ukraine ends in defeat and in Russia’s economic decline, and war-weary, brutalized, and jobless soldiers return from the battlefield, major protests could erupt into civil war-like conditions. It is unlikely that these would lead to a rapid democratization. If there is a regime change in Moscow, it is unlikely to be initiated by the weak liberal democratic forces. The historian and Russia expert Jörg Babarowski writes that in such a situation, an unholy alliance of military, secret services, fascists, and old Stalinists would be more likely to come to power. So, are there really no chances of democratization?

We know from democratization research that certain preconditions are needed for successful democratization: a country should be surrounded by democracies and not isolated internationally, have experience with the rule of law as well as democracy, and have assertive democratization actors. Such institutional experience or even popular democratizers are thin on the ground in Russia. Even under Boris Yeltsin, Russia was more of a kleptocratic anocracy, more of a failing state than a liberal democracy. With Putin, there will certainly be no democracy. But even after Putin, democracy is not a likely prospect for Russia in the short term. Many people in Russia do not much like “Western” democracy, with which they have associated theft, anarchy, decadence, and state dissolution since Yeltsin. This can change, but it would take time.

The German path to democracy after 1945 shows this very clearly. In both West and East Germany, a widespread mentality of subservience prevailed even after the Second World War. But at some point, Germans learned to respect democracy. West Germany only substantially changed from a formal to a participatory democracy in the wake of the 1968 protest movement. The first change of direction in government in 1969 from the ever-governing Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) to the social-liberal coalition (SPD, FDP) intensified the push for democratization in society. Chancellor Willy Brandt (1969-1974) called on the political elites to “dare more democracy”. However, the National Socialist dictatorship lasted only 12 years in Germany. Before that, there was the ambitious attempt at democracy in the Weimar Republic for 15 years. And again, before that, the Kaiserreich had a well-functioning constitutional state with organized parties and associations. After 1945, the Marshall Plan and the re-education process underpinned the beginning of West German democracy. None of these favorable legacies will be seen in Russia any time soon. This and the legacy of almost a whole (short) century of totalitarian rule make democratization in Russia much more difficult than it was in Germany after 1945.

Finally, the geopolitical situation contributes to the poor prospects for Russia’s democratization. Whether Russia associates itself more strongly as a junior partner with China, leading to a geopolitical bipolarization with the US, and with the democratic West on one side with China and Russia on the other, will play a role. There is much to be said of this. The scope for democratization will narrow even further for Russia as a result of the asymmetric-autocratic embrace by China, the rising superpower. Overall, the domestic and foreign policy constellation is not favorable for Russia’s democratization.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

This article is based on an interview Anna Rose did with the author for Radio Liberty/Free Europe and appeared there in Russian:


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