The fate of the anti-corruption and opposition leader Alexey Navalny over his most recent criminal charges has come to a rather abrupt and seemingly impromptu end. Sentenced to a suspended 3.5 years, he was spared the far harsher sentence the prosecution sought of ten years in prison. However the real victim was his brother Oleg, sentenced to 3.5 years in a labor colony. He is an unfortunate victim of an old Soviet tactic where family members are held liable for the actions of their kin. (Not to mention being convicted of spurious fraud and money laundering charges, a very 21st century form of repression increasingly utilized by authoritarian regimes).
The immediate implications of the regime’s actions over Navalny—giving him a suspended sentence, moving the sentencing hearing forward, implications for the opposition, ect.—have already been extensively detailed, the best of which coming from NYU Professor Mark Galeotti, here and here, which can be little improved upon.
However the actions on Navalny reveal more about the mindset of the regime than their concern for this lone anti-corruption Don Quixote. They reveal a regime that is genuinely concerned, dare I say frightened, over masses of protestors in the streets. These same masses of people overthrew regimes during the Color revolutions, the Arab Spring, and most recently in Kiev. And this concern has been heightened over the precipitous drop in the price of oil and the surprising cohesiveness of sanctions that has exposed and exacerbated already daunting economic problems. This helps to explain the moving of the sentencing date forward, the removal of the posting to protest on Facebook, and the prominent presence of OMON riot police after the sentencing.
And while the power of mass protests and civil society has received much of the credit for overthrowing regimes in recent years, the real threat to authoritarian regimes comes from the elites and the coercive apparatus of a regime. The leaders of which can ultimately decide the fate of a regime by ignoring or following the orders given, depending on whether or not they see their future aligned with that of the regime. That is why the Kremlin has reinforced its control over both. It serves to reinforce the ability of the regime to crackdown on any inchoate protest movement.
To ensure this ability, the regime has focused not on the conditions of the wider economy and the average Russian citizen, but on shoring up support among regime elites, such as ensuring that sanctioned persons and entities receive state support (the so called “Rotenburg Law”), along with reminding them of their precarious position (demonstrated by the arrest of businessman Vladimir Yevtushenkov). It has also meant the elimination of those advisors who are not blindly loyal and the promotion of those who are. One of those in the latter category is advisors is Viktor Zolotov, a former Judo partner of Putin and current head of the Interior Ministry Troops (VV). Zolotov has proven to be a ruthlessly loyal acolyte and rumors swirl about his potential to replace current Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev. A fact that has not escaped the notice of the professional policeman, who is often noted for his professionalism, and resulted in him taking a much more pronounced position closer to what he believes the Kremlin wants.
This fear of losing the Tsar’s faith keeps the elites in check. There is a clear vertical of loyalty, between the elites and the leader, maintained by periodic purgings and competition among the various individuals and groups. Purges reinforce the vertical of loyalty by making sure that an individual’s position is precarious and disrupting any connections with other members of the elite. This makes the creation of any networks and lines of loyalty harder to make among the elites themselves (horizontal loyalty networks), ensuring the elites are loyal only to the leader and not to each other. It makes replacing the vertical of loyalty with horizontal loyalty networks impossible, or at the least extremely dangerous.
While it’s clear that the upper level elites and those older members of the regime remain loyal and fate remains tied to the regime. The same cannot be said for the younger members of the business and security elite whose fate is not inextricably tied to that of the regime. They have been largely spared from the more widespread purges that have targeted the higher level elites. Russia, and its form of government known as hybrid or competitive authoritarianism, is hard pressed to conduct the widespread purges that would be required without losing some of its constructed and manicured legitimacy.
These younger members have grown up under a time of relative stability and are mostly ignorant of the contrasts that Russia experienced transitioning to a free market from the Soviet Union. Their Russia is a relatively prosperous and growing Russia, one that allowed the veneer of free elections and participatory democracy but in reality was a hardening authoritarian government. And this was tolerated, if nothing else because of the dramatic rise in the standards of living and stability that Putin and his acolytes brought. Up until this point the regime was able to purchase loyalty and co-opt enough of the opposition through massive profits from natural resources which also allowed the regime to resist any meaningful reforms of the economy and the legal system.
This situation has dramatically changed, and the process started well before the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. Russia has become a more isolated country, shut off in many ways both ideologically and now economically. But these younger elites are also stymied by the older cadre of regime insiders that control the levers of power and appointment. This means that qualities such as efficiency are replaceable with loyalty and a particular vulnerability to influence—or blackmail beyond the norm. As a result there is the potential for a greater fissure among the elite in Russia, those old and loyal whose fate is tied to the regime, and those young enough to see a future beyond Putin.
It’s clear that the likelihood on an imminent collapse of the regime is unlikely. Putin remains too powerful and too popular. Yet, the legitimacy of the regime weakens while the problems it faces continue to grow. But it is not sanctions, or even the drop in oil that is the most dangerous. It is the simple fact that the regime is expending more time and energy into ensuring the elites remain loyal and cracking down on those who oppose it. If there are fewer resources to buy off the populace and elite, then there have to be higher applications of coercion, which is especially dangerous to a competitive authoritarian regime that allows a modicum, or perceived veneer, of dissent and opposition. This undermines the manufactured and cultured legitimacy so crucial to their mandate to rule. And what Navalny was exceptionally good at was puncturing this cultured image, exposing the capricious and Nero-esque levels of excess that permeate the Kremlin.