Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Rise of Vladimir Putin: Elite Politics in Early Postcommunism

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Rise of Vladimir Putin: Elite Politics in Early Postcommunism

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article explores the various ways in which Karen Dawisha's book Putin's Kleptocracy improves our understanding of the impact of elite behavior on postcommunist politics. It focuses specifically on the modes of agency whereby Vladimir Putin and his collaborators transposed cultural schemas, mobilized polysemic resources and launched concrete projects. The text also offers an analysis of the Putin clique's modus operandi, and in particular of how knowledge about Western legal and illegal economic practices is utilized and how the preference for secret actions affects Russian political elites' capacity to form alliances with important social constituencies. Finally, the paper examines one of the most compelling messages that Putin's Kleptocracy conveys, namely that a discrepancy exists between the objective pursued by Putin, the rise of Russia as a global power, and the organizational strategy which he deploys in pursuit of this project, single-minded reliance on strong personal ties--a strategy that undermines the institutional basis of Russian statehood and renders undeliverable the benefits of good governance.

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Karen Dawisha's book Putin's Kleptocracy fully demonstrates the heuristic potential of deftly crafted empirical inquiries that examine the impact of key elite constituencies on postcommunist politics. (1,2) Ever since the dramatic events of 1989-1991 the "elite variable"--defined by John Higley and Michael G. Burton as "persons who are able, by virtue of their authoritative positions in powerful organizations and movements ... to affect national political outcomes regularly and substantially"--has been studied by a fairly large cohort of social scientists. (3) Their work expanded our understanding of the momentous processes that transformed the Soviet bloc and also suggested how this understanding can be further deepened through additional research. Dawisha's masterpiece builds upon the insights that enliven this subfield in the literature on postcommunism and offers novel, theoretically engrossing ways of thinking about postcommunist elites and their power.

By the early 2000s, the scholarly effort to comprehend the various ways in which the actions of power-holders reshaped domestic institutional landscapes, redrew the parameters of political contestation, and reconfigured the nexuses connecting the domains of politics and economics in the former "second world" had generated solid empirical data and inspiring analytical interpretations. (4) It bears emphasizing, though, that almost all scholars who partook in that effort readily acknowledged that their work was a preliminary attempt to reconnoiter a terrain which should be subsequently mapped with more precision.

One problem with the subfield of postcommunist elite studies was that the question who exactly could exercise what kind of power remained only partially answered because the dichotomies and descriptive terms that constituted its analytical armature proved to be somewhat simplistic. For example, quite a few scholarly writings published in the 1990s revolved around a key question formulated by Ivan Szelenyi and Sonja Szelenyi: "Circulation or Reproduction of Elites During the Postcommunist Transformation of Eastern Europe?" (5) Why this particular question should loom so large is easy to understand: it is rooted in a venerable Italian tradition of elites-focused research, and it was significant for everyone interested in postcommunist politics. (6) But as soon as the scholarly effort to gather and systematize elites-related data got under way, it became clear that the "circulation vs. reproduction" schema could not adequately capture the complexity of emerging realities because what actually transpired were hybrid configurations which involved elements of both patterns. (7) Likewise, frequent references to "old elites" or "the nomenklatura" tended to obscure the fact that elite factions affiliated with the ancien regime were quite diverse and were differently situated in the rapidly changing formations of power. …

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