tv Timothy Frye Weak Strongman CSPAN June 29, 2021 9:03pm-10:23pm EDT
it gives me pleasure to introduce today's panel where we will behe discussing the latest book. tim is a dear friend and colleague when i started as an assistant professor on the forefront of scholarship on the post-soviet era and i'm sure thisnd book will be an important contribution to the literature about not just russia but also how we have returned retrenchment and democracy esthroughout the world. we have a panel of three discussions todayth and i will -
the professor of the columbia school of journalism. the professor of history at international affairs. i will hand it over to talk about the book before the other commenters chime in. i want to thank the organizers haand panelists for taking time out of their schedules so i really appreciate and look forward to hearing what you have to say about the book. the simplest wayay to describe e limits of putin's russia is and
explain her book and translates for a general audience on a host of interesting questions is putin really popular, do elections matter is propaganda effective, why are relations so fraught with different kinds of questions. the book should have something different whether you identify as a russian hand or just someone who is russia curious. this book departs from the existing work on the russia and in three ways the first is i critique two of the most common narratives and the exceptional russia explanation and i will caricature them in the interest of time. but there is quite a bitit of truth in these two views.
let me illustrate with an explanation of the arrest of the largest oil company in russia in 2003. some emphasize the personal role of putin with little interest in markets to reward and consolidate power and the view that we should view russian politics largely as a reflection of the kgb background that's the way putin is. others attribute to russia's historic fusion of private and state property and russians suppose that lack of interest and this suggests we should see russian politics through the lens of the history and culture
and it argues that there is a uniquely post-soviet mentality that allows russians to favor a strong hand and that russia is the way it is because that's the way russians are. one problem is similar appropriations took place around the same time and countries as diversee as algeria, chad, ecuador, senegal and venezuela and if we look to 1946 to 2010, what we see is when oil prices are high, nationalizations are much more common. so like a lot of russian politics, the takeover was driven less by putin's background or russia's unique history to the autocratic rule. rather than treating putin's russia as led by a unique leader
overseeing a unique country i argue we should view putin's russia as a personal autocracy. led by a single individual in the countries of the politics that differ from autocracies that are led by a military such as chile or the contemporary myanmar or parties like contemporary china wheremp the soviet union. they rule based on a mixture of personal popularity and propaganda and for performance they do have to deliver some goods in order to gain popular support and they also rely on coercion and oppression but they tried to avoid it because it is quitee costly. ecalthough they have no power in their hand, they face a host of trade-offs and it's important to
understand these if we want to understand politics in these countries and the successive chapters on putin's popularity. i identify these trade-offs for example looking at the russian elections the autocrat faces a problem of you cheated too little you risk losing but if you cheat too much you might signal weakness and then spark a backlash. you need to use corruption to reward your inner circle but at the same time you can't allow so much that it slows growth and slow popular protests. although kratz in the regime's manipulate the news but not so much that people stop watching the tv. they use anti-western -ism to rob the base but not so much that it provokes the war. if we look at the personal autocracies we also see patterns
repression seems too be higher and when we look at russia, it sounds like a pretty familiar picture. rather thanha treating putin as all-powerful, i highlight the trade-offs. it's important to note that they are a a problem but it doesn't mean that putin is going to fall from power anytime soon it just means governing russia poses a host of challenges and it doesn't mean that you are able to do whatever you want. the book argues that we need to look beyond putin to understand russian politics. to probe the trends in society and figure out which groups challenge putin's role and which groups because he's had fairly high levels in various times
over the last 20 years, so that is one big departure. i rely on academic research. there's lots of great writing by journalists. one could make the case it's better than it is for other countries but my book doesn't do that. i couldn't compete't with the journalistss on that. instead i try to highlight of this research on russia which has been terrific. it's not well understood but russia has been a great place to study in the last 20 years. the public opinion is better than any other autocracies. the quality of the administrative data on growth and social indicators is better than other autocracies and it really helps that russia is a very well educated country. it's important to note many of the scholars today are russian.
in the last 15 years i've had as many russian co-authors and this has been overlooked i think in the broad debate so in the book you will see how we conduct surveys to figure out whether russians are lying and answer questions about putin's approval and how we identify propaganda campaignsru and how we use big data to identify the political and economic elite. and unfortunately this research has had zero impact on the public debate on russia. one goal in this book is to bring this research to light.
from a lot of writing on russia i mix in a a lot of personal anecdotes of my adventures and misadventures over the last 30 years. you willyo learn about how i worked as an exhibit a guide on the cultural exchange in the late 1980s. for many i was one of the first americans that they met and shed an awful lot of life to live in an autocracy. i also describe some of my experiences in the russian securities and exchange commission and what it's been like to head a research institute in moscow at the school of economics over the last decade. i think these anecdotes make the book a better read. they also provide insights that are high to come by unless you
spent a lot of time in russia and i think they give a tone to the book that's different from a lot of writing on russia. just to wrap up, i think it's hard to change people's minds on russia. both sides or all sides of the debate, people really dug in hard but i hope this will provide a little nuance and complexity and reduce some of the violin the discussions about russia. by using social science evidence and paying more attention to the russian society, i am trying to get past the arguments made about russiaab to provide a cler picture about the russian policies today. thank you so much and i look forward to hearing all of your comments. >> thanks. we will turn to our panelists
now. first up is the assistant professor of magazine journalism at the columbia journalism school. please take it away. hello, everybody. thank you for having me and thank you for this really fun and very useful book which really does cover a tremendous amount of ground and summarizes in a succinct and entertaining way a lot of political science research that i wasn't aware of. i learned to terms i can't believe i lived this long without knowing. one was autocratic legalism. a description of how the kremlin and other regimes just kind of very people in lawsuits and have the appearance of legality as a
form of oppression. why people in a place like russia might choose to think certain things or ignoregn certn things not because they don't know about them but because it doesn't serve their interest of how it's behaving because there's nothing they can do about it and nothing good can come for them. i look forward to waiving this book at people who don't know what they aree talking about wih regards to russia. >> i had a general thoughts or questions. i don't know if i will have time to answer all of them but i thought i would bring them up.
first is the question of the specificity and your point is well taken. kind of anof alternate title of the book i kept thinking of is an average autocracy. the putin regime really resembles so many other contemporary autocratic regimes and it seems to have more in common with victor's regime or more in common than it is with the stalin regime. so that seemed like a very useful corrective the fact that russia is well educated, more
educated than most contemporary autocratic regimes i thought that was interesting. the geopolitical position is unique. it's more powerful than most autocratic regimes. it's the most powerful given that china as a party so it made me wonder ultimately whether the the path out of autocracy is going to depend on those factors and you talk a little bit about that in your conclusion, but i thought that was interesting. similarly, i enjoyed reading about the ways you and other political scientists structure the surveys to make sure that they are using valid data. and you make the important point
that is often lost in discussions that the kremlin can't just give up support for any old policy. so, crimea, yes. a strong and durable support, as you say. but syria, not at all. so as you point out ultimately, the economy you can tell whether a president will be elected depending on the performance of economy. so, putin's popularity is dependent on the performance of the economy. but you do also say that political elites can mobilize. what opinion is mobilize able. so it is a kind of unique valence but what about men's or
kia. i can imagine suddenly people saying we have to have we can see in ukraine along the ethnic or linguistic lines that periodically would lay dormant in the politics and get mobilized. so, i would like to know about which opinions can be mobilized and which are the kind that can't do that. what is the theory of change that we can come out of this book with? i thought about a russian
political scientist but i'm sure you know his work looking at the post soviet regime's kind of said if yout- look at the pseud- democracy is that they've set up, it kind of leaves them open and vulnerable and as you say, these autocratic leaders want to be popular and they've decided to continue having elections and through an argument at those points you handle this crisis if you stole the election obviously, this is when you would have problems. i wonder if that is no longer valid in the russian case. certainly seems like the kremlin has had a good way around that by limiting the opposition earlier on before it gets to the point of the election.
one of the things he was doing is thinking of the ways so still in play as a kind of factor of oppression. i do wonder coming out of the research how do we get out of this situation. and the t final question that yu touch on inin the conclusion, ad may be the most relevant for the discussion is how do f we -- why has the discourse been so and there are all of these factors that the trump situation and being a person that wants to haveru constructive relations means that you are pro- trump up until a few months ago.
we are now watching a kind of character assassination. we have a lot of people that have good research which doesn't always make it out into the kind of mainstream discourse. i wonder if anything's changedn in the last ten, 20, 30 years talking about russia in a constructive and reasonable way more difficult for this country. so those are a few things. but such a useful and delightful book.se >> thank you for those questions. do you want to respond while they are still fresh, or do we want to wait? >> why don't we wait and i will pick them up.
hopefully people have forgotten about the hard questions so i can take it into more discretion. next up is the professor and inhistory and international affairs at princeton university. >> >>thank you. thank you for the opportunity to be here today. congratulations on the book. from my point of view as an obligated leader, we have far too many books on russia sadly. but we have far too few good books and then falling into the latter category which makes this a pleasurable experience. in the late '80s and early 90s, the russians were saying they wanted to be a normal country. and this was true of the vast
majority of people you would speak to. the argument is russia is a normal country it has become a normal country. it is normal, it isn't unique. autocracies fill journalists. putin and escalates the judiciary. they emasculate any limits on executive power. putin's regime is corrupt so we are dealing with just another country here. it's not a normal country in the way that those people i spoke to in the late '80s and 90s were hoping. they were hoping for a normal country in theok west european social democratic welfare state
high standard of living rule of law but nonetheless professor frye is not happy that russia is la normal country in this personal list autocratic state. he would prefer that it's more normal in the western european but if it is normal than its to the research being understood through social science because any country can be understood through a social science. the beauty of the book, which differentiates this on the vast majority of books published on russia is that it's in. call and evidence free. they are full of all sorts of stuff. but they don't havetu an
evidence. so here we haveve a look that is completely laden with empiricism. some of it, he carried out himself in very clever, icsophisticated surveys, political, sociological research. this is very refreshing and judicious and makes the book in necessary read for anybody interested. however, the argument of the book makes you think nobody is going to read it because there seems to be a lot of demand for a simplified mythologized politicized understanding of russia. in other words, he's fighting against that but the fact that it seems to be so pervasive and makes him so angry seems to be a problem. i would argue that this is not
of course specific to russia at all if russia is a normal country, simplified, mythologized and politicized understanding of the country that is even more universal and we can have a longer discussion about u.s. views on america and a simplified and mythologized and politicized. so, we have attention here between the desire to mobilize the social science and normalize russia. every country is politicized and that would be a good question for another time.
scratch outut russia and put in any country. >> another issue i would like to consider is that he is set up those that are mutually exclusive. in other words there is a fantastic social science research. he is juxtaposed them as if they are mutually exclusive. that is an interesting and rhetorical strategy. it doesn't really work for him. first of all there are people i won't mention any names but who are part of friendships for 30 years and have argued that russia is an authoritarian country like other authoritarian countries, but that leadership matters and that tradition
matter but he set them up as mutually exclusive rather than complementary with phrases like the kgb background is not irrelevant. so the strategy is interesting because it isn't a social science rhetorical strategy. okay. what's the question we are actually trying to explain here. what is the question that puzzles us that we don't understand that professor fry is helping us understand? you might think the question is how does this fit in with other autocracies but that isn't what theic book says.
the book says there is one like that but in fact it gives a lot of examples of russia being different. in fact, the problem here is that russia is not just a personal autocracy today but personal autocracy yesterday and the day before yesterday and the 100 years before that and the 300 years before that and the 700 years before that. on a 700 plus transition to something other than personal autocracy which not a lot of countries are on that transition or trajectory so in the end he must've talked about the things that he said are mutually exclusive which are problems like explaining why russia is still russia and not for example germany which has had also episodes of personal autocracy but isn't like that today.
moreover, we then get some stuff that's very sneaky for example, compared to others, russia is too rich and educated to be nondemocratic for us to be so nondemocratic. so it is a personal autocracy but it shouldn't be. somebody made a mistake. it is to well educated to be corrupt and liberal. russia is exceptional,xc but wh? why is it like other, not unique like other autocracies, and why is it on this transition out of something that it cannot gethi t of? i will make two final points. we have a weak strongman.
what's interesting is he can take away their property, he can do a lot of things that for example, professor fry can't do professorfry is an academic at r research institution and weak wouldn't call him a week academic i think we would call him strong based upon his amazing publication record, teaching evaluation. what's amazing about the argument of a weak strongman is that i don't know how you could be a strong strongman because all of the problems that make him weak or things putin does himself. he continually weakens his own rules. there is a kind of structural limitation if the argument is correct, you can't have a strong strongman because they step on themselvesn all the time.
i would like to know how you can be a strong strongman and why some strong strongman are strong and why some others seem to be condemned structurally to mean weak because of all of these trade-offs that they see. a final point, and this is a plant that is now becoming very popular. i saw this under someone else's name recently. the absence of an alternative covers everything. i've been making this argument ever since i owned. some people might argue i still don't understand, but the case you already had here and this is not about me, this is about the professor. but bolshevik wasn't good about anything. it couldn't say to people, it couldn't organize, transport.
i could go on and on. it was a mess but there was one thing that it excelled out and that was destroying any hint of an alternative. it would crush immediately with all of its force the hint of an alternative and so the absence of an alternative is what covers everything including those extremely clever and subtle surveys that professor fry himself engineered with his colleagues. so, that point i would argue it isn't deeply enough appreciated in the arguments in the book. and that is to say that the absence of an alternative, which also was eluded to in talking about eliminating candidates before you get tote the need of manipulating. it does make it a lot easier i have to say. we can't do that unfortunately
in our back up team meeting as well as the personal list autocracies. in conclusion, let me reiterate that this is a very good book on russia. there are a lot of good booksoun russia that you should never read, let alone by. but this is one of them that now you should open your phone and go on amazon and order immediately because it is in empirically rich, full of evidence, very clever in the use of social science and deployment of social science and does make a lot of important arguments about how to contextualize russia not predominantly in the personalistic or in the history and tradition. but in a way these kind of regime's behavior and that is a very valuable lesson for anybody
trying to understand russia today. so a heartfelt congratulations and thank you once again for the invitation tonight. >> the professor at the department of international science at columbia and currently the director for latin american studies there's been a lot about these books [inaudible] it's very well written and
unique, but it's emphasized and the politics of it are quite unique to russia in that it is a player but not a strong player int' terms of private security. they do not have weapons for m.other countries so they need o do cyberng terrorism. what's very important is in the fall of the soviet union i do remember people than the young generation studying.
from the soviet union and i think the reality of the soviet union and the bolsheviks that is why we cover these regimes but it's not clear the history of no experience to democracy is going to save. there's soviet repression and terror but what was absent for me in thinking about the book was the role of history and the contemporary theory but this is a fantastic book for those who want to learn about russia. thanks a lot for the invitation. >> thank you for the insights and comments and questions.
according to the schedule you have five minutes to respond to all of these questions. i'm going to ask that you respond to the most difficult questions first. >> thanks a lot. terrific. this is the first panel. let me start with the comments about why the discourse is based on russia and there is a lot of that debate lurking in the background of the book and i don't really take it head-on and that was a conscious decision because i was afraid that would reinforce the kind of polarization and compel me into one camp or another. there's a lot of stuff for each side of the divide. they won't like it but learned when we did the surveys in 2015
yes people were not lying when they answered the question about putin's approval and the kind of russia hysterics when you look at the russian efforts in 2016, the chance that they turned the election in trump's favor are pretty low so that was a conscious choice not to take the debate head-on. part of the reason why the discourse is so divisive is that it's. hard to study russia. it's far away and gives a lot of people room to make claims that are hard to disprove. russia doesn't help things in this sense in that they often politicize the debates themselves in ways that are not helpful at all but one question i kept coming back to is what
evidence could i give somebody that would a fair-minded reader consider persuasive and there's some part of it that you will neversu persuade so what i tried here is to load the dice and keep coming at the reader with more evidence. but it's really interesting points and then your second point about the specificity and to steve's point as well this was a tension in the book and may be i go overboard on trying to paint russia too much as a normal autocracy. that was something of a choice and so much of writing about russia is in the vein that putin is like other leaders and is so
unique pushing against that you might think i go too far but that was kind of a corrective based on where i think much of the writing on russia is today because you have to make a choice. there's a lot of implicit non-comparison of russia to other countries where people only look at russia and then the explanations are only rooted in factors that occur in russia and then by definition, you don't know whether then prophecies going on are the same as in other countries. so, in trying to balance off what makes russia special and what makes it comparative you know, you do have to take a comparative approach to find out what's different about russia
that it's better educated and there's not much evidence that they are less interested in politics or participating than other countries. the way you establish that is by looking outside. so only by looking outside can we figure out what is unique and what is not. on the comments it is mutually exclusive and yes that is a good criticism. rei am an area studies guy originally. russian language and literature. what i think it is exciting on the new research on russia is that my students and that kind of younger generation are not only well trained in social science but they spent a lot of time on the ground in russia. they traveled the country and a
lot of that have come to the u.s. and studied and come back andt married the fact of the social science approach and a deep understanding of the country. so that i think distinguishes a lot of the work. on the week strongman, i started with this, no one is going to buy a book that's titled containing theod strongman or te moderately week strongman. the text is more measured than the title and steve says i am a strong man. i appreciate. my students seem to hold that point of view but the point is here and a lot of discussions about russia in the west there is this assumption that because putin is unrivaled politically
he can just do whatever he wants. the democracy just snaps through his orders because he is the all-powerful name such a tepersuasive character in the wt putin is probably reading your e-mails right now because he has this incredible, incredibly powerful kgb to be able to manipulate the internet in ways that can lead to russia's advantage and look at the aspects what can putin do really well to crush the political opposition and to make alternatives less appealing if you look for example at the approval rating it is not just that the approval ratings have been high. no one else's ratings have been high. there's a big gap between putin and everybody else in the approval rating so i take that
quite well and to segue into the point of shortchanging history herere that is a serious charge and we are also forced to make trade-offs particularly writing a book for a general audience you've really got to keep people turning the pages and it forces me to cut out a lot of topics that i would have liked to spend more time talking about. one is the history of personnel as a man russia. they've had a lot of countries that have had personal experiences for long periods of time and even if we think about russia and the brezhnev era they had a lot of collective decision-making at the highest
level and in the yeltsin era you had those that have a personalistic ruler but he had to struggle every year to get the budget passed through. and that was an epic battle each year and the point i want to make is that putin's russia is very different, very different from that and that collecting so much power in his own hand it allows them to do certain things but not others and a lot of those other things are important for building power within russia if you have the power to expropriate people it's very difficult to get people to invest. it's difficult to get businesses to innovate and that's kind of the paradox and steve talked about in some of his writing as well about if you have all power
you don't have the time and energy to resolve all problems and it creates lots of unintended consequences and i try to point those out in the book we can devote a lot of time having back and forth on the questions. but let's give the audience a chance. here's the first question. one topic that has not been mentionedus is in the discussion through the table of content that is not mentioned in the book is by the organized crime connections and policy choices that have been well documented in the petersburg mayor's office and became involved and are clearly connected i to major international groups. while many find themselves cooperating with organized crime groups and few of them have the
time early in their career. before they get into a high power positions at this set putin apart i mentioned the experience in the leningrad city government and charges he was in charge of the food import program in which money came, it went out of the country and there's lots of allegations putin was deeply involved in this. the book covers those topics and so much better detail than i can. that's really not what this book is about. and it's also not unique for
leaders to rely on all kinds of eragents at the disposal. whether or not that colors his economic policy or foreign policies, that's the kind of analysis i don't want to do in a book like this because it would require an awful lot of speculation and relying on sources that i think would likely be pretty dubious. second question -- >> by the way if anybody wants to jump in on these points, we have tremendous amounts of expertise here. so i would be more than happy to hear from the panelist as well. in the meantime let's go to the second question. you mentioned performance does matter even in personal dictatorships. what policy areas do you find to be strong on look to good performance in russia and it doesn't matter forsi outcomes given the foreign policy
no. we'll give this to another company to develop. they brought it to market twodu years ahead of schedule. so building the bridge to crimea has never been targeted this vaccine if you look at those targeted efforts the russian state can resolve specific problems. that generating thatme economic dynamism that comes from innovation and creating a level economic playing field rather than people with good connections to the state that foreign-policy is wildly
reality -based approach of a by the book so the main policy point i take away from the book to have a clear eyed view of russia to recognize that russia is not on the brink of an economic collapse just to push them over the edge not a mass ground swell of support. and then to bring down the regime not based on putin not
to personalize relationship that is what putin is really good at. and berlusconi in italy but it is beyond putin to recognize there are many voices in the kremlin different methods and what putin wants to hear group in russian society that like to see a better relation and the more predictable relationship. and those types of messages should be a part of the package of howso we approach russia. >> not concrete policy proposals of how to handle the russian trade policy. so can you tell me more about
your theory of change including russia and why would it change? >> one view is putin's years in power are par for the course of the region like kazakhstan and lukashenko has been in powers researchers that outside of the former sovietie space that's on the edge of 15 years. is when a leader dies and what we have seen by azerbaijan.
but that is a difficult transition. so also have to to stay in power for a long period of time but there was a loss of equilibrium a sort of popular leader with no alternatives with a version of russia that satisfies the news of the majority. another way change might come about is changes ine the economy. and fresh as economy faces the global energy market. and with those ten years in
able to claim it was pride that most people believe that the impact on the election. but the presidential election that would be a much tougher challenge if current trends continue. so leaders can make mistakes that we see in belarus it was too much. and on the streets in a country where therere is very little protest. i am skeptical that change comes. there is a lot of wishful thinking about foreign
countries ability for those politics russia. it is really hard. i am skeptical that's the way change will come about. >> . host: we have a question if progress of other similar ncountries the book makes the argument that it's really not about putin but the other terms that we might use. >> that's nott a great term. it's commonly used in this literature. but regimes in which major policy andin personnel decisions that is when it's time to step down. so in mexico every six years the time is up and then move
on to somebody else. but even in china until recently to manage the two terms for the general secretary. and when it's time to go. because there's all kinds of information all incentives to hide a lot of the bad news. leaders that are politically challenged for what's going on in the country. >> are there any questions or comments from the panel? >> what about the trade-off?
for that specificity that'ss clearly their the russian space? that foreign-policy chapter in the book is what i struggled with the most because russia is the atypical policy and there is a whole literature in social science and cross national decision-making so there are other kinds of autocracies. the same time to satisfy what is unique about russia and putting too much power then to
have specificity's but it doesn't do for justice but i have already stated that. so let's not imagine that you ignore russian history and tradition and institutions. in fact you have all of that in the book. so let's start beating ourselves up with a stick trying to get the most out. [laughter] >> do you want to respond? >> but then with that then you
>> i have a question if i could for the professor. you talk about a 700 year transition to democracy and suggest it will never happen. the term that has come up in your work recently is passed dependence that is a depressing term. have you given up hope? >> this is a question i would prefer to let his answer stand and i would want the audience to focus on his book when it collapses autocracy comeskr back. so we have a problem that needs to be explained we have
a cage that we live in but a very long time that professor, back to you. >> i quote at one point in the book men to make persuasive them people commonly realize. and then to show that in russia where the purges were severe, voting patterns in contemporary russia was different than where they were less severe. turnout was lower the support for the regime is higher. now that is really
interesting. and that is much better as russia always has centralizing power. so therefore that is an explanation. no. that is a description. we need is an explanation why it is happening now. my decentralization or centralization is happening rather than decentralization. we have all seen in the soviet period and in russia period. there is a lot of interesting work being done right now that looks at how the past affects the present and it's a difficult thing to do without japan of the mechanism of these villages in 1838.
and then to make that happen through those events. and really smart people doing interesting work on that and i try to highlight that a little bit in the book. >> does putin have a spot to get out alive? >> they all have a plan. [laughter] but the point i'm making in the book but also it's difficult but they emasculate it's only political institutions it would be helpful to facilitate the transfer of power and then they don't provide a soft landing so that strategy would
be to revert for the security services to make him hard to dislodge but at the same time to make the new president of russia to make them nervous it would be difficult for that person to exercise powerfully for putin to still be around for the political scene so if we would like to step down it's difficult to find a way to find your successor so they will leave you alone.
>> we are just about out of time thank you to the panelists. this is a terrific discussion i wish it could go on for another hour if we get always people in the same room together at some point but here is the book. week strongmen. published by princetonss university press. please go out and buy it. thank you again to everybody. >> thank you everybody thank you for organizing this
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