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Perestroika, Putin-Style

Gorby in reverse
Gorby in reverse

We picked the wrong metaphor.

When Vladimir Putin announced four years ago that he was returning to the Kremlin, the comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev came fast and furious.

If he served two more terms, the logic went, Putin would be in power until 2024 and his reign would end up being even longer than that of the octogenarian Soviet leader. Surely another period of stagnation was coming.

Instead, what happened was a revolution from above.

The new model Putin abandoned the laissez-faire authoritarianism he had relied on during his first two terms in the Kremlin.

He scrapped a governing model based on elite stability and rising living standards, one that relied more on the passive acquiescence of the masses than on mass mobilization and repression.

Mass mobilization and repression, of course, are now very much in vogue. So are traditional values, ideological rigidity, imperial expansion, and campaigns against imported food.

The elite is being asked to steal a little less. And the public is being asked to sacrifice a lot more.

Putin has essentially torn up the existing social contract.

Instead of presiding over Brezhnev-style stagnation, he has launched his own perestroika -- albeit in reverse.

"It's an irony of history that there is an analogy here with Mikhail Gorbachev, who himself created a dynamic, started a process and deepened it, but in the end the process ended not as he had intended," Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said in a televised interview in April 2014 as the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine was gathering steam. "Right now, the same kind of full-scale dynamic is beginning."

Gorbachev understood that the Cold War was sapping the Soviet economy and sought to ease tensions with the West, opt out of the arms race, and ultimately join the Western community of nations.

Putin appears to be savoring confrontation with the West and in the space of a couple of years has undone nearly three decades of Russian efforts at integration and cooperation.

Gorbachev's perestroika destroyed the woefully inefficient Soviet command economy, but did so before a market economy developed to replace it. This led to severe hardship and falling living standards that ultimately undermined the regime's legitimacy.

Putin's antiperestroika is undermining Russia's market economy, moving it toward autarky.

Western sanctions are denying Russian firms access to credits, Russian countersanctions are pushing imports out of the market, and import substitution isn't filling the gap.

The result is declining living standards, negligible growth, galloping inflation, and depleting currency reserves. Thus far, this hasn't undermined the regime's legitimacy -- but it's hard to imagine how it won't eventually.

By upending the existing political arrangements in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's perestroika allowed a fledgling democratic movement to find its voice and led to the rise of independence movements in the non-Russian republics.

The marginal became the mainstream and Gorbachev lost control of the forces he unleashed.

Putin's anti-Perestroika has also upset existing political arrangements and has empowered formerly marginalized groups -- in this case, ultranationalists.

It's too soon to tell whether the nativist monsters Putin has unleashed will be his undoing, but there are signs that they are getting restless.

Volunteer fighters are returning from Ukraine, and taking their heavy weapons with them, leading to an increase in violent crime.

Talk of betrayal is becoming more common on nationalist websites.

And former separatist commander Igor Strelkov has said that Putin's inner circle has been infiltrated by a fifth column and announced that he is considering forming his own political party to challenge the ruling elite.

There is one other thing that Gorbachev's perestroika and Putin's antiperestroika have in common. Both came at a time of falling oil prices.

The political elite in the late 1980s came to the conclusion that this meant it was time to reform the economy and make amends with the West.

But the Putin elite has come to the opposite conclusion. They've decided it's time to double down.

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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