The crux of the survivability of any authoritarian state relies solely on one issue: the prevalence of alternatives. No matter how terrible, evil, indifferent, or unjust a regime is, it will survive as long as no one threatens to topple it.
Russia was not always the kleptocratic dictatorship it is today. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was one of many fledgling states which sprung from the former empire’s ashes and began to build the foundations of its democracy. A country’s early years are what ultimately determine its trajectory and Russia’s upbringing was cursed with the rise of Putin.
Putin began his career as a KGB spy and rose to power through the new Russian Federation through his connections with Yeltsin, superficially loyal demeanor, and overly extravagant public displays. Most notably, when he assumed the office of acting president, Putin turned Russian troops fighting in Chechnya and painted a public persona for himself of law and order. Throughout his presidency(and periods of de facto leadership), Putin continuously employed public displays of power and competence, both of himself and of his military, in order to cement the Russian place on the world stage.
Putin’s aggressive and often illegal and immoral tactics have incurred condemnation from critics both within and outside of his country. Putin’s mistake of invading Ukraine further established the Russian leader as a reckless dictator with little regard for human life. Putin has been able to maintain his grasp on the country so well for so long because no viable alternative appeared.
With Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion with the Wagner paramilitary organization, analysts began to seriously consider the prospect of Putin being overthrown. A Russian oligarch with crucial personal connections influence over the military, and frustration over the failure of the invasion of Ukraine seemed like the perfect candidate to overthrow Putin. As he marched his army toward Moscow, many hopefuls were rejoicing over the seemingly imminent overthrow of Vladimir Putin. However, as the coup suddenly skidded to a halt as quickly as it materialized, it is prudent to reflect on whether Prigozhin would have been a superior option for Russia.
As mentioned in past weeks, Prigozhin is not a typical hero destined to save a nation. He came from a criminal background and was repeatedly convicted of robbery and theft in his early adulthood. As he grew in various businesses, some of which flourished illicitly, news of his corrupt dealings and questionable practices began to surface. Prigozhin is not a traditionally entrenched member of the Russian elite; quite the contrary, he is somewhat of a Kremlin outsider who climbed the ranks of the Moscow hierarchy solely by currying the favor of the Russian president himself.
Hence, it is no surprise that when Prigozhin launched a rebellion against the heavily unpopular war, no influential member of the higher echelons of the Russian oligarchy joined him. Prigozhin is more of a ruffian than a leader and possesses neither the sophistication nor the strength the lead a successful rebellion, much less the entire country.
Although Prigozhin is probably better than the trigger-happy Putin, he is perhaps one of the worst alternatives to the current Russian dictator.