Politics have returned to Russia, with a vengeance. The contested December 2011 parliamentary elections, which were supposed to be an inconsequential stepping stone on Vladimir Putin's triumphant return to the presidency and the Kremlin, instead gave birth to a serious challenge to the ruling regime. A Putin victory in the March presidential elections, although still likely, is no longer a boring inevitability. The post-election protest demonstrations of December have shown that the Russian populace is not as inert as many supposed, and that Putin's mastery of the political system is increasingly shaky.
To understand both the reasons for Putin's weakening grip, and how likely it is that he can weather the current storm, it is necessary to re-evaluate the conventional narrative about Putin's reign. Putin's claim to rule, subscribed to by many both in Russia and the West, is that he rebuilt a strong Russian state after the "Time of Troubles" associated with the Soviet collapse under Mikhail Gorbachev and the "wild nineties" of Boris Yeltsin. This tale, although not entirely without merit, obscures a more fundamental truth: in many important ways, the Russian state remains very weak. Moreover, this is true not in spite of Putin's efforts, but because of them.
The German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." The organizations that control the means of legitimate violence within a state are the police, the military, and other law enforcement and security bodies. Putin, with his background in the KGB, relied heavily on officials from state coercive agencies (what Russians call "the power ministries") to govern, and rewarded these agencies with expanding budgets and power. Yet this group of power ministry officials, the so-called siloviki (from the Russian word for "power" or "force"), was not a coherent team, and frequently quarreled over bureaucratic privileges and economic spoils.
How well did the Russian power ministries perform their core functions during Putin's presidency from 2000-2008? Central tasks for security and law enforcement bodies include maintaining internal order, fighting crime and terrorism, and protecting property rights. Yet Russia's homicide rate, the highest in Europe, was as high under Putin as it was under Yeltsin, although it did fall dramatically in Putin's second term. Levels of domestic terrorism were equally high under Putin as under Yeltsin; indeed, excluding Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia had the highest number of deaths from major terrorist attacks in the world in the six years following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. A greater degree of order was established in Chechnya using a variety of brutal but effective means such as kidnappings and disappearances, but the North Caucasus as a whole, including regions that border on Chechnya such as Ingushetia and Dagestan, was more unstable and violent after Putin's presidency than before. Finally, Russian businesspeople, from shopkeepers to oligarchs, remained at the mercy of corrupt law enforcement personnel who engaged in a variety of illicit schemes to prey on businesses and line their own pockets.
The Russian power ministries did become stronger in some respects, which may explain why the myth of Putin the state builder is so prevalent. In particular, Putin relied on the police, the secret police, and prosecutors to weaken the political influence of some powerful forces that had bedeviled Yeltsin. Russia's regional governors, who had acquired disproportionate influence not only in their own regions but in national politics, were transformed into cogs in Putin's system of vertical power with the help of law enforcement agencies, who under Yeltsin had often been "captured" by the governors. Similarly, major oligarchs who controlled important media outlets or refused to play by the Kremlin's rules found themselves exiled or jailed. Opposition politicians, political parties, and human rights groups were harassed by police and prosecutors. In other words, Russia's power ministries were more adept at extraordinary tasks delegated to them for political reasons than they were at the routine, core functions that were assigned to them by law.
Crucially, the Russian public does not believe that the police and other security and law enforcement agencies serve their interests. Public opinion polling over the last two decades shows high levels of social distrust toward the police and the courts, and respondents believe that law enforcement personnel work mainly for their own personal and corrupt interests, rather than serving the public. Russians believe that the very structures that are supposed to uphold the law are the most consistent violators of it.
Although Putin has frequently trumpeted his alleged state-building successes, both Putin and his successor, Dmitriy Medvedev, have acknowledged the persistence of high levels of corruption and the weakness of the rule of law ("legal nihilism," in Medvedev's words). This failure to make any headway in combating these problems is directly connected to Putin's misguided state-building strategy. In particular, Putin showed little interest in improving the quality of the state - the degree to which the state and its officials serve the interests of the population in a fair manner that promotes the general welfare. Russia's rulers have been more concerned that the power ministries serve the interests of the ruling elite, rather than those of society. They thus failed to create a professional bureaucracy based on merit rather than personal ties, and weakened those state and civil society actors, such as the parliament, the media, and non-governmental organizations, that can play an important role in monitoring the behavior of state officials. The weakening of democracy under Putin made state officials more brazen and uncontrollable.
The Moscow demonstrations against Putin are inspired not just by outrage about a falsified election, although this was the immediate trigger, but also a general disgust about the corrupt and ineffective state that Putin has built. This social discontent about the failings of the state unites liberals, communists, and nationalists. Russians want a state that treats them fairly and looks out for their interests, rather than alternately ignoring them or preying on them. It is true, as many commentators have noted, that these social longings spring in part from the material gains of the 2000s, in which many urban Russians acquired the trappings of middle-class life, such as a car, disposable income, and foreign vacations. Russians are tired of living in a state that performs like that of Guatemala or Kenya, even though they are as wealthy on a per capita basis as the citizens of Argentina and Poland. Putin deserves some credit for making Russians wealthier -- although high world energy prices helped immensely -- but also some blame for neglecting the quality of the state.
It remains to be seen whether the current public discontent, at least in the major cities, has staying power. If it does, the stance of the power ministries could be important. We know from the Arab Spring, and the earlier so-called "colored revolutions" in Russia's neighbors Ukraine and Georgia, that the behavior of the military and police is critical in the face of mass protests. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin's Russia is a type of police state that has relied upon state coercive power to marginalize his actual and potential political opponents. Further, the power ministries and the siloviki benefited materially from his rule, and he is one of them. On the other hand, these agencies have over the last decade mainly been asked to engage in what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call "low intensity coercion" - criminal investigations, short-term detentions and arrests, etc. (1) They have not had to employ "high intensity coercion," involving the use of violence against large groups. Given that police and security officials have been motivated more by lining their own pockets than any ideological commitment to Putin's regime, the reliability of these agencies is an open question, beyond the likely reliability of small units of special forces.
Putin's natural instinct at times of challenge, such as the 2004 Beslan terrorist school siege, is to blame internal and external enemies for conspiring to weaken Russia and to seek to tighten the screws. If he resorts to electoral fraud to secure his victory in the March presidential elections, and Russians continue to protest in large numbers, he may find out that his screwdriver is not as reliable as he thinks it is.
(1) Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010).