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

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 nomenklatūrā' 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.8 Vilfredo Pareto's commonsensical proposition that "an individual generally brings with him certain inclinations, sentiments, attitudes, that he has acquired in the group from which he comes" should certainly underpin elite-focused agendas - and it is also clear that such agendas will yield limited knowledge if the group in question is only very abstractly identified and its specific characteristics are left unexamined.9 The general juxtaposition of "old" and "new" elites achieves relatively little in terms of illuminating the essential attributes of powerful groups.

An additional problem with the budding subfield of postcommunist elite studies was that virtually all the writings on the subject drew primarily on quantitative analyses based on survey data.10 These analyses certainly illuminate emerging constellations of elite power. But quantitative studies are considerably less helpful if our ambition is to adequately confront the central challenge that inspired the modern theory of elite politics, a challenge Gaetano Mosca formulated in the following way: to understand what it is that makes possible "the dominion of an organized minority, obeying a single impulse, over the unorganized majority. …

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