Staunton, June 23 – Because Vladimir Putin has blocked Russia’s evolution toward democracy, the Kremlin leader and with him Russia as a whole has lost the chance for a peaceful and orderly succession, Boris Akunin says. Instead, the Putin era “will in any case end badly,” either via “a palace coup or a social explosion” since “the people do not have any other option.”
In an interview to Deutsche Welle while he was in Germany for a conference, the prominent Russian writer argued that this unfortunate prognosis reflects two realities: no one can run an enormous country for long in the 21st century by dictatorial means alone, and Putin and his regime have failed to understand that or its obvious consequences for themselves.
The original interview (in Russian) is available here . A useful summary of its contents can be found here.
According to Akunin, the current situation in Russia is “extraordinarily similar” to the Russia of 1905-1914. Now, as then, there was “an advance of reaction, a return to archaic forms, a harshening of morals, and a demonization of opponents.” There was and is “an outburst of hurrah patriotism.” And there is and was a sense that a revolution will not be long in coming.
Russia’s current “autocratic regime is archaic and ineffective. It simply cannot administer such a large and complicated country. It is economically and organizationally ineffective” because in the 21st century it is impossible to run Russia out of a single pocket, without the mechanisms of social control, constraints and divisions of power.”
“All this with bankruptcy, above all in the economic sphere,” he continues.
There is no fundamental contradiction between having a strong state and making the transition to democracy. Indeed, in many countries and it Russia as well, a strong state is a requirement at least in the transition period. “But it must not be so harshly centralized;” there must be real federalism.”
Because Russians are financially better off, they are not going to go into the streets the way Ukrainians have, he continues. Russians who do so now go into the streets “not for economic reasons but for ethical and esthetic ones,” but “no esthetic movement can be especially strong politically.”
In other comments, Akunin suggested that Putin’s support is not as deep, unified or long-lasting as many believe. Some support him because they really believe in what he is doing; some don’t believe that Russian can be a democracy; and some do so because they are not free to object lest they lose their positions or worse.
Anti-Ukrainian attitudes are not widespread or deeply held in Russia, Akunin says. What Russians angry about are many of the same things Ukrainians are, but unlike the Ukrainians, Russians “continue to think in the 21st century in the categories of the 20th and thus do not think about direct political action in the same way.”
Akunin says he is pessimistic about the present because “the Russian state is to a significant degree the successor not of Byzantine and West European traditions but of those of the Golden Horde,” a reality that gave Russia many positive things but not democracy, and “when we speak about” the differences between Europe and non-Europe, we are talking about “democracy or no democracy.”
But he adds that he is more optimistic about the future because underlying forces will ultimately transform Russia into a more democratic state, one with “real federalism, important democratic institutions,” a free media and independent courts. Unfortunately, that day may not come anytime soon.
The Russian writer says that at present Russia has the mental age of 15 or 16, a time when hormones are raging, when an individual has not yet learned to discipline himself or to understand personal responsibility. “But the main thing is that he poorly understands the consequences of his actions.” In short, Russians are a nation which has not reached adulthood.
Akunin has been raising these issues for several months. In a blog post in March, for example, he argued that what has happened in Russia under Putin has been “a transition from a plutocratic autocracy to a police state and dictatorship,” something he said Russians had not yet been willing to show the courage to oppose.
He is from alone in offering this diagnosis of the Putin regime. Historian Andrey Medushevsky, for example, is arguing that “President Putin received from President Yeltsin almost monarchical authority … and in fact, under Putin, only a military coup could change something in the existing ‘constitutional government’ without a system of ‘checks and balances’”.