Staunton, October 5 – Few images are as widely invoked in talking about Russian politics as that of a frog and hot water. If the frog is thrown into boiling water, it will jump out and save itself; but if it is put in water and that water is gradually heated to a boiling point, the frog will remain confident of survival until in fact he dies when the water comes to a boil.
That image is now being invoked by Nikolay Petrov of the Center for Political-Geographic Research, who argues that Vladimir Putin is gradually raising the heat with the final goal of construction a system of a military camp, “without prospects for social solidarity and with very weak hopes for renewal” (rosbalt.ru/russia/2017/10/05/1650947.html).
In a conversation with Rosbalt observer Sergey Shelin, Petrov says that the Kremlin has made repressions “the new norm,” with about two percent of elites in the regions and at the center having been “repressed” each year in the last two. Things are getting worse in that regard and in terms of the severity of the punishments being meted out.
According to Petrov, “we are observing a constant revision of the rules of the game.” Those who continue to play by the old rules inevitably suffer, and those who suffered before may be brought back to suffer again in order to teach others a lesson. And that lesson is this: there is no hope even in absolute loyalty unless one remains very flexible.
“When Putin came to power, he began with the destruction of federalism and the inclusion of governors and regional elites in a general system of the power vertical. At the same time,” Petrov says, “Russia began to be converted into a federation of corporations which became as it were states within the state” such as the FSB and Russian Railways.
Now, however, “we see that the wave has reached the point that there is no autonomy anywhere. Centralization at the level of federal corporations has also taken place. A system of super-centralized administration from one center in such a gigantic and varied country as Russia cannot be a new balance point.”
Consequently, the Russian analyst says, “it seems to me that this is absolutely a traditional state, after which inevitably must be followed the proclamation of new rules of the game. The rules which operated earlier already don’t work.” Some aspects of the new system are already visible.
“There is no mutual trust and the chance of organizing horizontal ties among elites now. This means that it is very easy to control them from above. At the same time, it turns out that the elites will not cooperate for corrupt purposes or any other.” They are simply interested in personal survival, and the best thing to do is to keep one’s head down.
That of course is leading to paralysis, a state that can’t continue forever. And it almost certainly will be attacked by the Kremlin in an effort to impose a harsher nomenklatura system that will involve “a single monolithic pyramid” in which “each will understand that he cannot count on any autonomous survival as a result of protection from above other than from Putin.
Thus, after what has been a period of feudal confusion, Russia is being transformed into “an absolute monarchy” by gradually raising the temperature of the water in which the frogs are swimming. This image, Petrov suggests, is even more appropriate for the population than it is for the bosses because the latter have had the water grow hotter only in the last two years. The former have been in hot water for a longer time.
The problem with Putin’s destruction of all institutions is that his system can’t survive him. When Stalin died, there were far more powerful institutions around than there are now. What will happen when Putin leaves the scene is thus a problem for which no one has yet found a solution.
What one can say, Petrov continues, is that the process of creating a new kind of organization will be “long and hard. There are no cells or structures which could work even at the level of local self-administration. Everything has been destroyed.” But the problems of a system which is interested only in preservation rather than development may come sooner.
“Ineffective administration realized without institutions always carries with it enormous risk. It can provoke a crisis even there where there are no particular preconditions present. Collapse is one of the real scenarios. The probability of a gradual renewal of the system abut which people spoke seriously not long ago now has been reduced.”