After fading into the background for many years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia suddenly has emerged as a new threat—at least in the minds of many Westerners. But Western assumptions about Russia, and in particular about political decision-making in Russia, tend to be out of date or just plain wrong.
Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin since 2000, Russia is neither a somewhat reduced version of the Soviet Union nor a classic police state. Corruption is prevalent at all levels of government and business, but Russia's leaders pursue broader and more complex goals than one would expect in a typical kleptocracy, such as those in many developing countries. Nor does Russia fit the standard political science model of a "competitive authoritarian" regime; its parliament, political parties, and other political bodies are neither fakes to fool the West nor forums for bargaining among the elites.
The result of a two-year collaboration between top Russian experts and Western political scholars, Autocracy explores the complex roles of Russia's presidency, security services, parliament, media and other actors. The authors argue that Putin has created an “informational autocracy,” which relies more on media manipulation than on the comprehensive repression of traditional dictatorships. The fake news, hackers, and trolls that featured in Russia’s foreign policy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election are also favored tools of Putin’s domestic regime—along with internet restrictions, state television, and copious in-house surveys. While these tactics have been successful in the short run, the regime that depends on them already shows signs of age: over-centralization, a narrowing of information flows, and a reliance on informal fixers to bypass the bureaucracy. The regime's challenge will be to continue to block social modernization without undermining the leadership’s own capabilities.
Recent commentators on Russia's economic reforms have almost uniformly declared them a disappointing and avoidable—failure. In this book, two American scholars take a new and more balanced look at the country's attempts to build capitalism on the ruins of Soviet central planning. They show how and why the Russian reforms achieved remarkable breakthroughs in some areas but came undone in others. Unlike Eastern European countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic, to which it is often compared, Russia is a federal, ethnically diverse, industrial giant with an economy heavily oriented toward raw materials extraction. The political obstacles it faced in designing reforms were incomparably greater. Shleifer and Treisman tell how Russia's leaders, navigating in uncharted economic terrain, managed to find a path around some of these obstacles. In successful episodes, central reformers devised a strategy to win over some key opponents, while dividing and marginalizing others. Such political tactics made possible the rapid privatization of 14,000 state enterprises in 1992-1994 and the defeat of inflation in 1995. But failure to outmaneuver the new oligarchs and regional governors after 1996 undermined reformers' attempts to collect taxes and clean up the bureaucracy that has stifled business growth.Renewing a strain of analysis that runs from Machiavelli to Hirschman, the authors reach conclusions about political strategies that have important implications for other reformers. They draw on their extensive knowledge of the country and recent experience as advisors to Russian policymakers. Written in an accessible style, the book should appeal to economists, political scientists, policymakers, businesspeople, and all those interested in Russian politics or economics.