The Future of Russia: Democratization or Disintegration?

Photo: Russia's disintegration is also a highly debated scenario in the modern world. Source: Collage the Gaze

By Petro Oleshchuk, political scientist, Ph.D

Read the original text at The Gaze

The question of what awaits the Russian Federation after the end of the current President Vladimir Putin’s rule is being discussed very vigorously around the world, due to the transformation of the Russian government into one of the most odious regimes in the modern world. At the same time, it is no secret that for a long time this regime satisfied many geopolitical players, as it solved several problems. First, it kept the Russian Federation in a state of relative peace and stability, which was especially noticeable against the backdrop of chaos during the reign of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Second, he ensured a stable supply of oil, gas, and other essential raw materials to world markets. For a long time, the elites of the world’s leading democracies preferred to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Russia itself, the lack of democracy and real freedom of speech, and, finally, to acts of military aggression against Ukraine and Georgia.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army made it impossible to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s crimes, which was reflected, in particular, in the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the Russian president. Given all the crimes, Putin can no longer be recognized as a partner for relations. But this increases the urgency of the question of what awaits Russia after Putin. Obviously, no matter how Putin loses power (through natural death or overthrow), this question will arise soon enough.“Putinism without Putin”Can a regime founded by Putin exist without his personal rule? This is not an easy question, because, unlike the ideologized Soviet totalitarianism, Putin’s regime is very personal. There is nothing ideological in it, only a set of propaganda theses needed to consolidate power. Under such conditions, when propaganda has been repeating for years that Putin’s role is exceptional for Russia, it will be very difficult to find a successor who would fully embody all the necessary features. Moreover, after Putin, power will most likely be in the hands of his closest associates, who have been selected for years according to the criteria of uncharismatic, inexpressive, and uninteresting.Theoretically, after Putin’s own reign ends, the regime he founded can continue to function, relying on its basic resources: the propaganda machine, the repressive apparatus, and deep ties within the elites. But this will obviously not be the case forever, because the crisis in society will continue to grow, and it will be necessary to deal with them somehow, and without a leader it will be much more difficult to do so.It is highly likely that the Putin elite, without Putin himself, may wish to restore relations with the civilized world in one way or another by launching a series of transformations in domestic and foreign policy, but this may pose a serious risk to them, as the situation may move in the same vein as during Perestroika in the USSR. Back then, the regime tried to ease restrictions within the state, but this led to the rapid collapse of the regime itself.Opportunity for DemocratizationAgainst this backdrop, many Russian oppositionists in exile are looking forward to the end of Putin’s rule as a chance for themselves to try to change the situation and compete for power. In general, the scenario that after Putin’s hypothetical removal from power, processes destructive to the regime could begin there is quite real.However, the question arises as to what extent these processes can be considered “democratization,” even if there is an amnesty for political prisoners, a wide range of people are allowed to participate in elections, and even the current opposition members are allowed to participate in parliament. The Russian regime may well make some changes to preserve itself, and these changes do not necessarily have to be very profound. After all, Russia itself experienced similar processes in the 1990s.We can talk about the democratization of any society only when the relevant democratic institutions are established. And simply announcing “amnesties” and “free elections” is not enough. Moreover, even the first steps towards real democratization may bring new problems.Disintegration As an Alternative to TransformationRussia’s disintegration is also a highly debated scenario in the modern world. The arguments of supporters and opponents of Russia’s disintegration have been known for a long time. Some argue that Russia is an empire, and therefore must collapse, while others argue that today’s Russia is quite coherent in terms of territory and ethnicity, and therefore has nothing to break up.But in the context of hypothetical regime change, this question may arise from a different angle. After all, Putin’s regime has been so successful in holding on to power because it has had very specific relations with regional elites. In particular, we can mention here the relations between the center and Chechnya, which has established its own authoritarian regime headed by Ramzan Kadyrov. The latter has full autonomy in his decisions, even has his own army, but expresses loyalty to the center. For this, he can have complete autonomy in everything. Even in the area of legislation, because federal laws often do not apply in Chechnya, as has been demonstrated on numerous occasions.Kadyrov’s example makes it clear that Putin’s Russian Federation is not just an authoritarian regime, but a rather complex entity with many levels. It is clear that Kadyrov’s autonomy is only possible if there is a similarly authoritarian regime in Moscow that also disregards the law. A regime that claims to be democratic will not be able to coexist with Kadyrov. This means that a very clear pattern of post-Putin separatism is emerging. Not so much for independence as for preserving the current state of affairs. And this is just one of the points.Accordingly, the outcome of Putin’s rule in Russia may be different, and it is impossible to predict them completely, but the experience of the collapse of the Russian Empire or the USSR shows that it is useless to try to stop some historical processes. It is better to be aware of their consequences and prepare for possible problems.