Watching an authoritarian regime disintegrate is like watching an episode of the US 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 program broadcast on Russian national TV recently. For over 10 minutes it made fun, crudely and openly, of Russian Prime Minister 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. Once the fear is taken out of the equation, 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. 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 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. Ordinary people flooded into the streets to protect the Moscow white house where former Russian president Boris Yeltsin sat, personifying democracy.
The Moscow mayor and other local officials were not frightened by the hardliners and so refused to obey their decrees. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, institutions kept marching on as usual: The airports worked, the telephones 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 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 back Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s odiously aggressive nationalist envoy to NATO, to serve in his Cabinet in Moscow. He is doing this because he is scared — and wants to bring back the fear that has enabled his rule for the last 12 years.
However, 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.