"Putin says Russia's new model of development will be Korea," the anecdote began. "He just hasn't decided whether it's North Korea or South Korea," went the punch line.
Following the joke's logic, it is now clear that South Korea was indeed the model -- but not today's democratic South Korea. Putin's model of development actually more resembles South Korea under the authoritarian rule of President Park Chung Hee from 1961-79.
Both Park and Putin came to power after a period of political chaos and ushered in an era of stability and prosperity. Both concentrated power in the executive, reduced the legislature to a rubber stamp, and turned elections into decorative affairs. Both politicized the judiciary and law enforcement and cracked down on dissent.
Park and Putin's management of their respective economies was also similar. Both brought state-owned companies under tighter control and were not shy about intervening in the private sector. Both also presided over economic booms that led to the development of secure and stable middle classes.
But one of the main similarities of the two regimes has been the concentration of political power and most of the country's important economic assets in the hands of a cabal of the president's cronies from the security services.
Put simply, both can be characterized as what UCLA political science professor Daniel Treisman has dubbed "Silovarchies" -- oligarchies dominated by siloviki.
Amid the political turbulence in Russia over the past several months, I couldn't help but be reminded of Treisman's insightful and much-discussed article "Putin's Silovarchs," which was published in the journal "Orbis" in 2007.
Antecedents of Putin's silovarchy, Treisman wrote, can be found not only in Park's South Korea but also in Indonesia under Suharto's authoritarian rule from 1967-98:
My main takeaways from the article were that silovarchies are deeply resistant to change, but at the same time they contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.
Silovarchies, Treisman wrote (prophetically, given what has happened in the five years since), have a particularly difficult problem with succession:
This puts the tandem arrangement of 2008 and the Putin-Medvedev castling move that was just completed in useful context. Putin, as I blogged here, is truly Russia's indispensable man if only because his inner circle simply will not allow him to leave the scene.
But despite their tough facade, silovarchies, Treisman wrote, are also ultimately unstable. They are inclined toward debilitating factionalism and turf wars that ultimately weaken the regime, making it vulnerable to shocks:
They also lack the safety valves that inoculate more pluralistic polities from mass discontent:
I would add that when it comes to economic performance, silovarchies also often find themselves in a paradoxical situation. A strong economy, on one hand, legitimizes the regime in the short term. But eventually, as a middle class develops and becomes confident, pressure for political change and pluralism grows. A weakening economy, meanwhile, can delegitimize a silovarchy very quickly as both Park and Suharto learned.
The South Korean and Indonesian silovarchies eventually fell due to a combination of all of these factors -- a strong middle class facilitated by years of robust growth, a sharp economic downturn that brought the middle class's discontent onto the streets, and factionalism in the elite when the economic and political crisis crystallized.
In South Korea, a weakening economy and rigged parliamentary election in 1978 led to massive student protests and a fierce crackdown. But as the protests persisted, many in the ruling elite lost their enthusiasm for repression. Park was eventually assassinated by his own security chief in 1979 -- although it took another nine years of martial law and successive military coups before democracy finally took hold in 1988.
Suharto's regime fell following massive protests that turned violent following the 1998 Asian economic crisis. He resigned after it became clear that he had lost the confidence of the military brass. A more pluralistic political system has since taken hold.
After 12 years, is Putin's silovarchy entering its winter? It is, of course, still unclear. The regime appears to have weathered the immediate post-December 4 storm more or less intact. Putin is safely reelected and the protests have faded.
But the newly politicized middle class appears to be here to stay and will be a force to be reckoned with. And the divisions in the elite exposed by Putin's return to the Kremlin and this winter's street protests remain sharp.
The economy remains strong for the time being, thanks largely to high oil prices, but it also remains undiversified and lacks a competitive manufacturing sector (or any competitive sector other than commodities). If world oil prices drop, as they eventually will, an economic -- and political -- crisis will soon follow.
-- Brian Whitmore