There is a whole industry dedicated to decrypting Russia for Westerners. She has two high-end products. One is ‘Putinology’, which claims that the worldview of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, is the key to understanding the direction of each step taken by the country he has controlled for more than two decades. . Second, there is an extensive library dedicated to demonstrating how Russia’s imperial past and its authoritarian traditions shape the present.
American political scientist Timothy Frye believes that these two approaches have merit, but not as much as one might think. In “Weak Strongman” (weak dictator), released recently in the United States, he proposes another strategy. “Instead of seeing Russian politics as being driven by an exceptional man who runs an exceptional country, I emphasize the models that Russia shares with other authoritarian regimes where there is a dominant individual,” Frye says.
Authoritarian regimes come in many forms. They can be commanded by the military or by a single party. When power is concentrated in the hands of one person, they become “personalist autocracies” in Frye’s parlance. Putin’s Russia serves as an example, as does Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.
The main idea is this: these regimes are characterized by the constant need to balance the demands of the masses with the demands of a small circle of power. The attempt to reconcile these opposing forces leads to distortions in the economy, inconsistent social policies, and corrupt and patronage-ridden bureaucracies. The situation becomes paradoxical. If he can do a lot, the autocrat is always between the threats of a popular uprising and a palace coup.
“Instead of being the omnipotent ruler of popular narratives,” says Frye, “Putin is like many other autocrats: a weak dictator. The name of the book is explained.
It may seem like an abstract approach, but the need to identify the interests and forces at play at each moment brings the analysis to the ground of history. In addition, Frye draws on a lot of little-known information about Russia. Director of a research center in Moscow, he assures that opinion polls are much more reliable in Russia than in other authoritarian countries, and that the data produced in abundance by the public administration allow the informed eyes to find many things the authorities would prefer to keep hidden.
“Weak Strongman” shows how political scientists have developed ingenious methods to measure Putin’s real popularity. It reveals how the Kremlin uses different combinations of cheating and “honest belief” in every electoral process, because “a little cheating can lead to defeat, but too much cheating can lead to rebellion”. He explores how the management of Russian companies is conditioned by the fear of surprise state intervention. There are dozens of stories and figures about how the logic of engagement, typical of “personalist autocracies”, is reflected in various areas of life.
This week, Putin and US President Joe Biden had their first meeting. Putin has sworn that the Kremlin has never launched cyber attacks against the United States. Frye has a good chapter on this topic. Putin clearly lied. But the heavy investment in digital warfare resources perhaps denotes more weakness than strength: these are weapons of limited effectiveness, of a Russia struggling to gain influence with traditional means of war. economy and soft power. Weapons of a weak dictator.