Putin's Soft Authoritarianism

A joke making rounds in Moscow nowadays goes like this: Americans didn't know who their President was two months after their last presidential election, but we Russians knew who was going to occupy the Kremlin two years before our recent election.

Russia's political class has ample grounds to be slyly and cynically proud of the system they invented - it guarantees the result it wants. Despite its lack of drama, intrigue, and competitiveness, the election was important not because Russia's political class renounced all the key elements of authentic democratic electoral procedures, but because it closed the chapter on Russia's liberal democratic experiment, legitimizing Putin's new Russian political system.

What is the nature of the new system? Is it democracy with adjectives, such as "managed" democracy, "illiberal" democracy, or "electoral" democracy? Only a few pundits stubbornly adhere to this approach. Or is the system simply that of a conniving authoritarian? This view is already conventional wisdom, not only in America, but in Europe as well.

In reality, however, Putin's regime is a strange and complicated mix, which relies upon two important elements: the personal power of Vladimir Putin himself and the growing role of Russia's consolidating democratic institutions. The tension between these two forces will drive Russia's political dynamics for the next four years. Complicating the picture further is the fact that Putin represents the most pro-Western force in Russia, while the state apparatus remains conservative, traditional, and archaic.