History professor John Bushnell and political science associate professor Jordan Gans-Morse spoke about Russia's economic and political structure Monday night at a roundtable discussion hosted by Politics & Policy.
The professors began by providing historical background in order to make more sense of Russia's position on the global stage. Beginning with the Czarist regimes of the early 20th century, Bushnell drew a parallel between Vladimir Lenin's Soviet Union which emerged in the long shadow cast by authoritarian czars, and Vladimir Putin's Russia which is working to progress from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia's semi-authoritarian model of government has emerged as a result of inconsistent economic success in the 1990s, argued Bushnell.
“You can't just jump out of the historical box that you are stuck in,” Bushnell said. “Revolutions happen at the worst possible moment, just as crises appear.”
Yet Russia seems to be trapped in what Bushnell deemed "'semi-authoritarian' government." Although there was nearly a decade of economic liberalization following the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic progress was slow to pick up.
Facing slow development, Russians grew tired of their representatives and pushed towards becoming more authoritarian to stimulate the economy. Enter Putin.
“Now, authoritarianism is not totalitarianism,” Gans-Morse said. “Russians may not be quite as free as they were 15 years ago, but I don't see a big difference between Russian, West European or American lifestyles.”
Thanks to the welcoming of privatization and an expansion of free-market economics in the 1990s, Russia has advanced beyond the unstable economics of the 1980s. Fewer consumer shortages and less government price controls on commodities have been one of the hallmarks of Putin's regime and Russia's entrance into the world market.
However, some scholars contend that Putin moved too quickly in privatizing the economy when he transferred hundreds of state-owned companies into private hands. Bushnell and Gans-Morse agreed that there is little way to know exactly how Russia best could have entered capitalist marketplaces.
“Anytime you try to move from a state-run economy into a free market, things are going to be messy,” Gans-Morse said.
The discussion concluded with some remarks on Russia's perception in American media, specifically in the case of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.
Citing anti-Russian sentiment in the American media and the fact that Russia is often depicted as the “big bad guy” in conflicts, Bushnell drew comparisons to the 2008 conflict in Asia with the recent debate in Congress about intervening in Syria.
“If American policymakers saw the issue in Syria as radical Islamists versus an authoritarian regime as Russia does, both America and Russia would have always been on the same page about Syria,” Gans-Morse said.