But a look at what we know about political transitions from social science suggests that Russia’s transition to democracy will not look like Syria’s bloody war. Let us explain why.
The Syrian elite are an Alawite minority, cornered and fighting with Assad for their lives and freedom
Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is rule by a minority. The Alawite religious minority is a narrow and tightly integrated caste, persuaded that its survival depends entirely on Assad’s hold on power. Alawites (who are closer to the Shiites by their religious practices) have ruled Sunni-dominated Syria for more than four decades.
According to Syria expert Joshua Landis, Alawites are united by their religious affiliation and the need to survive in a hostile religious environment. Right now, they make up a disproportionately large share of the Syrian military and special services. Political scientist Risa Brooks shows that establishing such political-military relations is the only strategy that can enable a minority regime to survive over time.
While in power, the Alawite elite have promoted their children and relatives to the top of the Syrian security forces and strategic ministries like security, foreign affairs and so on. They’ve also emphasized a cultural tradition of loyalty to family, clan and religious group.
The result: Alawites have been completely devoted to Assad, with remarkably low defection rates to the opposition. While many Sunnis who were in the government or military left Assad to join the opposition, very few high-level Alawites did. Even now, the Syrian army’s officer corps is still standing by Assad.
Paradoxically, the international sanctions introduced in 2011-12 may have weakened the Syrian economy — but they have united Syrian elites, reinforcing the Alawite elites’ “siege mentality” and cohesion. Even through serious economic crisis, Alawites have stayed loyal to the regime, fearing collective punishment if Assad is defeated, including religious cleansing, prison and death.
And they’re probably right. Members of the Sunni opposition sometimes vow to “grind the flesh” of pro-regime Alawites and “feed it to the dogs.”
That’s not true of Russia’s elites.
Unlike Syria, ruled by a minority, Russia is a populist autocracy that holds loyalty by routing resources to various groups, including the inner elites, security officers, bureaucrats, public-sector employees and so on. But unlike the Alawites, these groups aren’t united by a minority identity. The Russian system has no minorities whose lives depend on keeping Putin in power.
And while some Russian elites owe their personal wealth to Putin, there aren’t many. Observers estimate that there are up to a hundred of them — although that number might grow into the thousands if you were to add Russia’s Head of Chechen Republic Kadyrov’s special battalions. By contrast, there are millions of Assad-devoted Alawites.
And while Syrian Alawites would likely be exiled, tortured or killed if Assad fell, if Putin were to go, most Russian elites would either keep their positions simply by offering their services to the next leader or would find their circumstances slightly reduced. A few would surely face serious threats, but far fewer than in Syria. Hence Putin’s elites are unlikely to shoot into crowds, despite Russia’s Deputy Minister of Communications Alexei Volin’s promises to do so during a 2015 interview.
What’s more, Putin buys his support outright, by funneling money, government sinecures and business opportunities to his backers. So what happens when Russia’s finances tighten dramatically, both because of sanctions and because of the falling price of oil?
As political scientists Bratton and van de Walle showed, in such systems, as the economic situation worsens, different groups compete for state resources. That results in grass-roots political protest and can fracture the elites. As the funds for various sinecures and concessions shrink, previous stakeholders are expelled from the system. That leads to a small cohesive state elite on the inside — and a pool of potential alternative leaders on the outside.
In those situations, the business class and middle class tend to join the opposition, because populist regimes like Putin’s usually make incursions on citizens’ property rights, expand state monopolies so that fewer outsides can profit, spawn too much government regulation, and corrupt institutions.
Who will win that battle between Russia’s insiders and outsiders? The answer depends on whether the outsiders can successfully organize popular protest movements and demand regime change.
Putin buys his support outright, but his funds are disappearing
When you buy elite loyalty, your supporters may defect once you can no longer pay for them.
Consider Serbia. In 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions during the Bosnian war. That weakened the Serbian economy severely, cutting into then-President Slobodan Milosevic’s ability pay off various interest groups. The paramilitary elites split over such resources as fuel smuggling.
As Serbia experts Anika Binnendijk and Ivan Marovic show, soon after the Serbian public began protesting their straitened circumstances, Army chief of staff Nebojša Pavkoviæ declared that the armed forces would stay neutral in any elections and would support whomever voters chose. Examples of this dynamic abound, in Venezuela and Bolivia, and during the 2004 Orange revolution and 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine.
Even in Russia, some traditionally loyal elite groups were tempted to support the protesters during the 2011-12 mass electoral protests. For example, Patriarch Kirill of the traditionally statist Russian Orthodox Church urged Russian authorities “to listen to the people, to express dissatisfaction with the policies, to protest against the election results, and to correct the political track.”
Currently with oil revenue plummeting, international sanctions cutting into the economy, the government’s approval ratings declining, and protests spreading around the country, some observers have already seen tensions among pro-Putin elites.
This is why Russian officials are lobbying determinedly to lift sanctions. As various elite backers of the regime face such troubles as having foreign banks freeze their assets or seeing their property devalued, the Russian government is trying to find ways to compensate them through initiatives like the “Rotenberg Law” or Plato system, in the hopes of keeping the loyalty of potentially unreliable elites.
So, no, a liberalizing Russia will not be like Syria
For one thing, international sanctions may indeed shake loose the strongman who invaded Ukraine. For another, past examples suggest that few, if any, Russians will fight for saving Putin’s regime. Should Putin fall, the more likely result would be a less bloody, more rapid and peaceful political transition.
Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University and a columnist at Vedomosti business daily.