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Members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle have long viewed Yury Andropov's brief rule as the path not taken, the great "what if," the missed opportunity.

If Andropov had lived, the argument goes, Moscow would have pursued a program of authoritarian modernization, introducing market mechanisms similar to those in China while preserving one-party rule. He would have reformed the economy, kept the Soviet Union together, and avoided the chaos and deprivation of the Perestroika period and the 1990s.

So it is not surprising that on June 15, the 95th anniversary of Andropov's birth, Russia's Channel One aired a nostalgic laudatory film titled "Yury Andropov: 15 Months Of Hope." (The video is available in Russian here. Paul Goble over at Window On Eurasia has an insightful write up about it here)

But was Andropov's path to reform really the road not taken? For nearly a decade, Putin and his team have been systematically working to implement a 21st century version of Andropovism. And when oil prices were soaring near $150 a barrel, it even seemed to be working.

But as Leon Aron shows in an article in the latest issue of "Foreign Policy," reality is finally setting in (the whole piece is well worth a read):

Putin's regime enjoyed widespread acceptance so long as income was growing by leaps and bounds. Putin's 'authoritarian modernization' was in large measure inspired and justified by China's spectacular growth. But the Russian version of the 'Chinese miracle' has been revealed to be yet another Potemkin village. For many Russian writers, thinkers, and activists struggling to understand the legacy of Putinism, there has been too much "authoritarianism" and precious little 'modernization'...

Looking around Russia now, Putin's new critics see only the ruins of unfulfilled promises and wasted wealth...They rue the missed opportunity for a modern and transparent state and for a diversified, entrepreneur-driven economy, the foundation for which could have been laid under the more favorable market conditions of the early 2000s.

Instead of building a modern economy when oil prices were high, Putin built "Sovereign Democracy" and the "Power Vertical." That was the real missed opportunity.

This is the subtext of the criticism now coming from the likes of Igor Yurgens, Yevgeny Gontmakher, and others.

And as Aron correctly points out, the regime's most vocal critics now are "not professional 'dissidents,' long ago marginalized by the Kremlin, but members of the intellectual establishment." Rather than an Andropov revival, Aron argues that Putin's efforts have unintentionally recreated the political climate of the early Perestroika period:

The mere fact that Putin's detractors dare write as they do (until recently, many have been wary of criticizing the regime in such weighty terms) points to a possible change in the Russian political climate not unlike the very early glasnost under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987. At that time, much of the critical writing was dismissed as elite ruminations. Yet, after the censorship was lifted, these views were embraced by millions, precipitating the Soviet collapse. In this sense, today's critics might well be a bellwether of a coming storm.

I'm not quite ready to go that far yet. Almost, but not quite. But as I have written here and elsewhere, something important is clearly happening in Russia. If not yet a thaw, I think we are witnessing the early stages of a great awakening among a key part of the intellectual establishment. The scales are falling from people's eyes. The old fear -- while not gone -- is clearly fading. The Kremlin no longer looks all powerful.

In fact, as Aron points out, it is looking more and more vulnerable:

Eventually, the Kremlin could face a stark choice: abandon the current, softer authoritarianism, which generally favors bribery and intimidation over jailing and killing, and replace it with a full-bore, hard dictatorship; or radically expand its political base by opening a dialogue with the opposition, liberalizing politics, and reducing the state's control of the economy. The first route will almost certainly be traveled without Medvedev, with Putin retaking the presidency. The other scenario has no room for Putin.

The shattering of the Putin myth, the changing intellectual environment, and the increased willingness of angry Russians to take to the streets is shaping up to be a potentially deadly cocktail for Russia's current rulers.

More than two decades after his death, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Andropov legacy.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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