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Political scientist Steffen Kailitz explains the risks and rewards of Vladimir Putin’s growing reliance on economic technocrats

Source: Meduza
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Since he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vladimir Putin has regarded the members of his economic team as the Kremlin’s most effective officials. Throughout the war, the president has repeatedly championed the strength of Russia’s economy, and he recently even replaced his long-time defense minister with a former deputy prime minister and adviser who specializes in economic policy. Steffen Kailitz, a political scientist and a senior research fellow at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism, has spent more than two decades studying authoritarianism. In 2020, he co-authored an article in the International Political Science Review where he measured economic development’s impact on the survival of different types of autocracy. In that research, Kailitz learned that economic development prolongs the survival of ideocracies and personalist autocracies. Meduza special correspondent Margarita Lyutova spoke to Kailitz about how economic modernization affects autocrats and what a regime’s technocrats can do to influence the process. Meduza in English summarizes the interview below.

Steffen Kailitz, political scientist

Links between economic development and democratization

Seymour Martin Lipset connected economic development with democratization and democratic survival, but this view has been disputed, including by scholars like Adam Przeworski, who argues that economic growth is linked to the survival of democracies, but not necessarily to democratization. Yes, “economic development generally supports democratization,” Kailitz told Meduza, “but various factors influence the relationship and it’s not uniform across regions.”

Classifying Russian autocracy

Even though the Putin regime has strong personalist features (and “it's hard to imagine another leader replacing Putin right now”), the modern-day Kremlin doesn’t fit the definition of a personalist regime according to the Varieties of Political Regimes classification, says Kailitz, noting that the Stalinist USSR was also otherwise categorized (as a communist regime), despite the “extreme personalism of that era.”

Why? “It's because formal institutions are still present and active, and there’s a strong state apparatus in place,” Kailitz told Meduza. Under Stalin and Putin, Moscow has operated institutions that maintain control over the economy and other aspects of governance. In a personalist autocracy, governance relies heavily on personal networks and lacks formal institutions like those found in contemporary Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Economic development and regime legitimacy

Kailitz stressed that failing to foster economic development undermines any political regime, whether it’s a democratic city on a hill or the scorched lands of Mordor. Economic stability is simply “essential for the legitimacy and survival of all political regimes.” The reason this issue’s existential qualities are felt more in personal autocracies is that these regimes are typically bad at using their resources “to legitimize the regime among the population.” In other words, the ruling elite “keeps the wealth mostly for themselves,” explained Kailitz, adding that this often leads to instability,

In fact, in regimes where the ideology doesn’t prioritize economic development, the autocrats actually hold back prosperity deliberately, maintaining “just enough economic stability to avoid problems while avoiding excessive development to prevent empowering the economic elite,” said Kailitz.

Merit and technocrats under autocracy

Though “stereotypical” personal autocracies adopt suboptimal economic policies, factors like “strong state institutions, long-term planning, and a focus on national development goals” enable some autocracies to observe meritocratic principles that lead to sound economic management, Kailitz told Meduza, describing it as a “challenging but possible” feat.

In Russia’s economy, continued heavy dependence on natural resources “significantly impacts the importance of economic competence.” According to Kailitz, this focus on resource exploitation “requires suitable equipment and basic management rather than advanced economic expertise,” which diverts Russia’s economic strategy away from the innovation, complex production processes, and higher levels of engineering and economic competence that fuel and enrich more diversified economies. The elites at the top of this economic model often rely on the resource sector and “may prioritize their interests over broader economic diversification, potentially hindering long-term economic development,” said Kailitz.

Kailitz acknowledged that Russia’s technocratic elites “might indeed be more progressive or pro-modernization” than President Putin, and he told Meduza that this poses “potential risks and rewards” for the regime. “Bringing in technocrats and economic elites can lend expertise and a sense of stability to key areas of governance,” but Kailitz says any “redistribution of power” along these lines could create “rival power centers within the regime” or at least “alienate traditional power bases (such as the military or security services) if they feel sidelined or undervalued.” 

Interview by Margarita Lyutova