Staunton, October 13 – All major economic indicators in Russia have been in negative territory this year but popular support for Vladimir Putin remains at an all-time high, a situation that could be described as “’Putin’s scissors,’” Andrey Illarionov says, and one that highlights just how far Russia has fallen into an authoritarian “trap.”
In a post on Echo Moskvy October 12, the Russian economist says that it would be “difficult” to find a clearer disconfirmation of the traditional assumptions about the links between economic and social-political developments than what is happening in Putin’s Russia today.
“Practically all significant indicators traditionally characterizing the economic well-being of a country have been going down,” including industrial production, investment, oil prices, international reserves, the exchange range, and stock market indicators, he points out, and what one would predict in a democratic country is “a decline in support for the authorities.”
But what is the situation in Russia? “An increase in the support of those in power,” with Putin’s approval rating growing over the same period by 32.3 percent and reaching 86 percent, the highest ever recorded during his presidency. This is so superficially strange that it is worth labelling it “’the Putin scissors’” which cut in a very different way than most expect.
Most people are inclined to explain this by the public response to “the occupation and annexation of Crimea,” but that is not sufficient, Illarionov says. On the one hand, the trend was in evidence long before Crimea was seized. And on the other, the relatively peaceful Anschluss of Crimea has been followed by the “bloody” mess in the Donbas.
In reality, this pattern can only be explained “by the unprecedented success of the disinformation war” that the Kremlin has waged, one that has achieved such success that it is not only able to influence how people see the surrounding world but able to substitute an image of its own making that “has nothing in common” with reality.
“In other words,” Illarionov argues, “the information special forces of the Putin regime have been able to achieve a much more impressive victory than has the special forces of the GRU which have occupied Crimea.” And that shows that Russia under Putin has moved completely from the situation of free countries into that of authoritarian and totalitarian ones.
In free societies, economic decline leads to demands for political change, but in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the situation is entirely different because those regimes – and Putin’s is one of them – have “liquidated the feedback system which exists in any more or less free social-political organism.”
When such feedback arrangements exist as they do in freer countries, economic problems lead either to “a change in policy, a change in the people responsible for mistaken decisions, and a loss of political power as a result of elections (in the case of a free political regime) or of a revolution (in a partially free political regime).”
In an “unfree” regime, those possibilities don’t exist, Illarionov says. The population can’t force the regime to change its policies, those responsible for mistakes won’t be dismissed, and a change in those at the top by election or revolution is almost impossible. As a result, “both the regime and the entire country find themselves in an authoritarian trap.”
“The objective situation of the country … is gradually worsening, society (or more precisely its significant part) doesn’t recognize this and preserves (or even increases) its support for the ruling regime, [and] the ruling regime does not have any interest, desire, or instruments for introducing adequate changes in its policy or even more in itself.”
That “authoritarian trap” is a real one, the Russian economist says. It “guarantees lengthy stagnation broken only from time to time by recessions and crises,” and this “unenviable situation” is the one in which thanks to Putin, Russia is “condemned to vegetate in the coming years.”