Watching an authoritarian regime disintegrate is like watching an episode of the American television series House, MD. Someone who was enjoying an active lifestyle at the beginning of the series is experiencing multiple organ failure 15 minutes later, with the doctors frantically trying to figure out why, and which vital organ is going to go next.
A friend sent me a link to a programme broadcast on Russian national television recently (the link was to a YouTube clip, since most people I know do not have actual working television sets – the habit of watching TV has quietly died among the educated class here over the last 10 years). For over 10 minutes it made fun, crudely and openly, of Vladimir Putin’s annual televised Q&A session. “What do you make of this?” my friend wrote. “Is this fake?” It was not fake. And what I made of it is that television, the most vital of organs in a state like Russia, is failing.
NTV, the channel on which the show was broadcast, is owned by the state gas monopoly,Gazprom, which has a large press holding. Technically, the channel does not have to take orders from the Kremlin, but in the past 10 years (since it was wrested away from its founder) it just has. And now it is just going to stop.
The thing about harsh authoritarian regimes is it’s not laws, or courts, or the rigid government hierarchy that makes them run. It is fear. And once the fear is taken out of the equation – suddenly, for the vanishing of fear is always sudden – it becomes clear that these courts, laws and hierarchies do not work. Everything just starts falling apart.
That is what happened here 20 years ago: institutions just stopped taking orders from the Kremlin. The media stopped fearing the censors who still sat in their offices at every media outlet. The police stopped applying absurd regulations, enabling the birth of private enterprise. Ultimately, the heads of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics lost their fear – and the empire fell apart, in what by history’s standards was the blink of an eye.
In August 1991, when Communist party hardliners tried to wrest back power, fear was the magic component they lacked. Some people got scared, to be sure – but enough did not. Radio journalists continued reporting on the coup and finding ways to broadcast even when their signal was repeatedly cut off and their offices were invaded by special forces. Print journalists from several newspapers that had been shut down got together to put out a joint publication they called the Common Newspaper. And ordinary people, including college students, professionals, and former army military men, flooded into the streets to protect the Moscow white house where Boris Yeltsin sat, personifying democracy.
The Moscow mayor and many other local officials were not frightened by the hardliners, and so refused to obey their decrees. Instead of being paralysed by fear, institutions just kept marching on as usual: the airports worked, the phones did not get shut down, people could get from place to place and communicate with one another. Finally, key generals did not obey the hardliners’ orders, forcing them to retreat in disgrace. In the end it was they who were scared.
Right now Putin is scrambling, planting his own hardliners in key positions. He has appointed his old friend, the FSB general Sergei Ivanov, as chief of the president’s staff – even though Putin has not yet been officially re-elected president. He brought backDmitry Rogozin, Russia’s odiously aggressive nationalist envoy to Nato, to serve in his cabinet in Moscow. In the coming days, he is likely to make more appointments that will show that his is a harsh, nationalist, authoritarian government. He is doing this because he is scared – and he desperately wants to bring back the fear that has enabled his rule for the last 12 years.
But Putin’s own media is already failing him. Some of his closest aides are sending out friendly signals to the protesters. They have lost the fear, and that means the whole edifice will come tumbling down. That process is unstoppable: Dr House will not come to the rescue.