By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin “inherited a weak state” but had “ the chance to build a strong one,” Ilya Matveyev says; but instead of using his power to create one, he focused on building “a system of personal power.” As a result, “he turned out to be an effective dictator but did not turn out to be an effective state builder.”
In a new commentary, the Russian political scientist at the University of California elaborates on that (reforum.io/blog/2023/07/09/kak-putin-ne-postroil-silnoe-gosudarstvo/; for a discussion of his ideas as presented earlier, see jamestown.org/program/wagner-pmc-exemplifies-how-putin-has-destroyed-russian-state/ and region.expert/destroyed/).
According to Matveyev, “the main result of Prigozhin’s rebellion has been that now everyone can see that the king” who claimed to have built a strong state is in fact “without clothes” and doesn’t have the institutions that such a state, so necessary for any country, needs. As a result, Putin is negotiating with Prigozhin – “and after that, everything is possible.”
Indeed, the political scientist continues, “this genie can’t be put back in the bottle,” thus creating a particularly dangerous period of transition during wartime precisely because the elites around Putin are divided between those who want to continue the war and those who want to end it and reintegrate with the West.
“If something happens to Putin or one of these parties opposes the other, the conflict will be severe,” Matveyev says, because “it will not just be a division of Putin’s inheritance but the division of that inheritance during a vendetta,” given that each of the forces now has “its own army.” That puts Russia on the path to “an uncontrolled scenario.”
Moreover, the political scientist observes, “Putin’s hyper-centralization did not remove but only suppressed issues of autonomy” for the regions and republics. “As soon as centralization is reduced, the questions about this will arise again” – and Moscow will have to try to find a modus vivendi with each.
With Tatarstan, “it may be possible to establish relations on a partnership basis, but what about critical cases like Chechnya?” There, the conflicts are likely to be severe and test the capacity of Moscow not only to rule the country but to manage the transition to a post-Putin period.
According to Matveyev, “the big problem is that the role of the population, of the citizens of Russia, has always been limited. In the 1990s, they were engaged in survival and could not lay the foundation for a solid democratic state … In the following decade, they went into private life” – and they weren’t willing to give that up to invest in the creation of a democratic state.
Putin offered them a deal which worked for a time: the population would get what it needed and “not mind that he was concentrating the levers of power and property in his own hands,” Matveyev says. “But in the end, the people were left with noting: no economic growth … involvement in a senseless war … and armed rebellion in the country.”
“This scenario will repeat itself again and again until the people take control of their political destiny into their own hands,” the political scientist says, expressing the hope that they will draw the necessary conclusions sooner rather than later.