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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the United Russia party congress in Moscow on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the United Russia party congress in Moscow on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

Putin's autocracy has a shaky foundation: oil Add to ...

The next Russian Revolution started this month. It will be another two or three or even four decades before the Russian people take to the streets to overthrow their dictator – and the timing will depend more on the price of oil than on anything else – but as of Sept. 24, revolution rather than evolution became Russia’s most likely path in the medium term.

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That’s because President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement last weekend that he would step aside next March to allow Vladimir Putin to return to the Kremlin was also an announcement that the ruling clique failed to institutionalize its grip over the country.

We have known since 1996 that Russia wasn’t a democracy. We now know that Russia isn’t a dictatorship controlled by one party or one dynasty. It is a regime ruled by one man. “The party doesn’t exist,” said one of Russia’s leading independent economists. “The politics is all about one person.”

That new reality might seem to be a victory for Mr. Putin. But it is a flawed triumph. His resumption of absolute power is also an admission that he and his cronies have failed in the project they set themselves in 2008. That was to create a self-replicating institutional base for the regime he brought to power in 2000, when he took over from Boris Yeltsin and dismantled the fledgling democratic structures.

Russia’s transformation into what political scientists call a sultanistic or neo-patrimonial regime is a break both with Russian history and with the global trend. The Kremlin has been home to plenty of murderous dictators. But the czars drew their legitimacy from their blood and their faith. The general secretaries owed their power to their party and their ideology. Mr. Putin’s rule is based solely on the man himself.

Russia’s shift to sultanism is out of step with the rest of the world, too. The Arab Spring was a revolt against some of the world’s most powerful neo-sultans; it is no accident that most of the remaining Middle Eastern dictatorships are ruled by dynastic monarchs, not strongmen. And among the world’s great powers – a group to which Russia is desperate to belong – only the Kremlin’s ruler need say l’état, c’est moi. China is certainly authoritarian, but it is a one-party state of precisely the sort Mr. Putin has failed to build.

One characteristic of paternalistic regimes is that they rule through fear and humiliation – remember the refrains from the streets of Tunisia and Egypt about people protesting to regain their dignity. That is being lost in Russia. When I asked a Russian businessman who was travelling in Europe what his friends back home thought, he was shocked by my naiveté: Kremlin politics, he explained, was no longer an issue that was safe to discuss on Russian telephones.

Don’t, however, expect Western business to complain. When it comes to dealing with governments, especially foreign ones, chief executives love one-stop shopping, and that’s one thing a personalistic dictatorship provides. As one European chief executive told me: “We applaud this candidacy. Putin has been supporting industry in a way that is remarkable.”

Another thing Western chief executives like about dealing with dictators is presumed stability. That’s not entirely a myth – look at Ukraine to see how turbulent a post-Soviet state can be when it experiments with democracy – but it isn’t totally true either.

Paternalistic regimes can be very strong, but they are also very brittle. They have two great vulnerabilities. The first is money. Fear and humiliation are important tools for a neo-patrimonial strongman, but he needs cash, too. A Russian economist I spoke to calculated that if the price of oil were to fall below $60 (U.S.) a barrel, and stay there, Mr. Putin’s reign could soon be imperilled.

The second is succession. The central problem with a regime built on one man – and a reason Mr. Putin tried to institutionalize Russian authoritarianism – is that it has no mechanism for transferring power.

“For this type of regime, the only succession is that you clone yourself,” Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and one of the most astute students of Russian power, told me. “In 2008, Putin wanted to convince us that he, like Yeltsin, could retire to the dacha. Now, there is no dacha for Putin any more. He must die in the Kremlin.”

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