Neo-Kremlinology Has Real Limits, Schulmann Says

February 3, 2015
Ekaterina Schulmann |

Staunton, February 2 — The revival of Kremlinology, of relying on a variety of indirect indications of who is closer to the top leader and who may be opposed to him, is “a bad sign,” Ekaterina Schulmann says, not only because of what it says about the increasingly closed nature of Russian politics but also because of what it says about Western perceptions of it.

In a commentary in Vedomosti today, the Moscow political analyst points to several recent Western discussions about the supposed configuration of power among those around Vladimir Putin and about who among them might challenge or seek to overthrow him.

As she puts it, “on a scientific scale, only psychological diagnoses of the first person” on the basis of television broadcasts are less scientific than this approach. Most of those who engage in them do so not because they want to — they’d prefer to rely on open and inter-subjectively comparable data — but because there is a demand for this kind of analysis despite its limitations.

Political science, Schulmann points out, has been studying conspiracies, coups and assassinations for a long time, and conclusions about them may be suggestive for the analysis of what may be happening behind the scenes in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

She cites the observations contained in a new book entitled Seizing Power, The Strategic Logic of Military Coups by Naunihal Singh (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) as potentially useful. She singles out three of his conclusion for particular attention.

First, Singh says, “the probability of a military coup … is not connected with the popularity or unpopularity of the leader against whom it is directed” because “the coup organizers live in their own information milieu and interact with others like them.” They are thus motivated by other factors than public opinion.

Second, the US scholar argues, “there is no connection between the presence or absence of growth in the national economy and the probability of an intra-elite conspiracy. And third, “coups are more likely to occur in the year of presidential elections or before then than at any other time” because the conspirators fear the results of such votes.

Taking Singh’s first point into consideration, Schulman says that this means that the forcible replacement of a leader is more likely to occur when he or she is popular than when he is unpopular: “What would be the sense of organizing a risk conspiracy against someone who a year from now would be removed from power?”

“But this conclusion arises from two assumptions,” Schulmann says, first, that the conspirators are rational and second, that the elections in the country in question will lead to a change of power,” neither of which is guaranteed in any particular country.

What is beyond question, however, is that those considering a coup are likely to time it relative to elections so that they will be in a position to legitimize themselves by a popular vote, however rigged, and thus not be shunned by the United States or the European Union.

Moreover, the probability of a coup is related to the wealth of the country involved. “Military coups of the classical type take place more often in poor countries,” Schulmann says. “Rich countries have already organized stable democratic system or decide questions behind the thrown in a family circle as Saudi Arabia does.”

“Instability in the transfer of power is the lot of regimes of an intermediate type,” the Moscow analyst concludes, and while she does not say so, it is quite clear that Putin’s Russia is in this category, something that helps to explain the current revival of Kremlinology and also the limits of that approach to understanding what is likely to happen.