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Is Vladimir Putin as powerful as the West thinks?

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Professor Timothy Frye's new book examines the limits of Putin's power in Russia.

Vladimir Putin has long been the bogeyman in the minds of Americans. Western media often portray him as an authoritarian ruler who has no qualms about making his critics and opponents disappear. But are there any limitations in its power? In his new book Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at the Institute for Political Science, gives a more nuanced look at Putin and the political power struggles in Russia.

Colombia News met Frye to find out what made him want to write this book, how influential Alexei Navalny is (alive or dead), and which sports stars he would invite to an imaginary dinner party.

F: What inspired you to write this book now?

TO: I have been studying Russia for more than 30 years and I was tired of seeing how the country's rich politics are often reduced in our public debate to clichés about Putin's KGB background or Russia's autocratic past. With our democracy threatened and global autocracy on the rise, I saw an opportunity. I wrote an explanatory book on Russian politics, drawing on recent social science research by a new generation of Russian and American scholars who have received little attention outside of the academic world to help us understand the moment. For all its problems, Russia was a great place to study autocracy.

I have also recorded many personal anecdotes of my misfortunes in Russia, from working on a cultural exchange in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to managing a research institute in Moscow over the past decade. From the accidental target of a honey trap in 1988 to the fall of Moscow's Twin Towers in 2001, these anecdotes offer insights difficult to come by without spending too much time in the country.

F: Many in the United States see Putin as an all-powerful leader, but your book argues that while he is an authoritarian ruler, his power is limited. How is that possible?

TO: Putin does not face serious challengers, but he is not all powerful. In order to consolidate his power, he has weakened the courts, parliament and the bureaucracy, but those in power also need these institutions in order to govern well. He rules a well-educated population with a corrupt and recalcitrant bureaucracy in a country with 11 time zones and relies on a mixture of achievement, popularity, propaganda and repression to stay in power. Just ordering people around doesn't get him very far.

Like all autocrats, he faces the dual threats of an elite coup and a mass revolt, and these two threats can rarely be addressed at the same time. As a result, he faces tough compromises. Manipulate the media, but not so much that people distrust the source. Cheat too little in elections and lose offices, but cheat too much and lose legitimacy. Suppress political opponents, but don't provoke backlash. Use corruption to reward your pals, but avoid economic stagnation that would make you unpopular. Strengthen security services, but not so much that they turn you on. Far from being omnipotent, Putin faces many limitations that all autocrats face.

F: The Biden administration seems to handle our relationship with Putin and Russia differently than the previous one. How does Putin react to these renewed tensions with the US?

TO: Russia's relations with the US are at a low point. At home, Putin is trying to use anti-Westism to shift the blame for Russia's troubles, and that has pleased some hardliners in the elite, but the Russian public is skeptical of this narrative. Putin and Biden are expected to meet in June, but by that point it would be a success just to prevent the relationship from deteriorating.

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F: Do you think opposition leader Alexei Navalny (alive or dead) poses a threat to Putin's rule?

Navalny has been a uniquely successful opposition figure in Russia for the past decade, and that has made him a target. Removing Navalny from the political scene, however, will not solve the problems that created Navalny in the first place. It will not raise the standard of living, reduce corruption, or increase confidence in the government and is likely to exacerbate problems.

F: Hopefully after you've finished writing your book, you will have some time to enjoy yourself. Which books are on your reading list and why?

TO: Novels and short stories got me through the pandemic. I immersed myself again in classics like Vasily Grossman's Life and destiny , Sergei Dowlatows The suitcase , and John Williams ‘ Steiner. I also read short stories with my 13 year old son Chekhov. Chekhov is my favorite. I just finished Min Jin Lee's Pachinko about the life of Korean immigrants in Japan in the 1920stheCentury. It has the historical momentum of a Tolstoy novel, but is set in a setting that is new to me. Now I'm reading Keith Gessens A terrible country .

F: You're having a little dinner party. Assuming everyone is fully vaccinated, which three scholars, celebrities, despots or artists, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

TO: I am a huge sports fan and enjoy listening to athletes talk about the secrets of their craft or the interface between sport and politics. I would invite George Popovich, the politically thoughtful basketball coach of the San Antonio Spurs, a wine connoisseur and, by the way, a former Soviet college student. Next up would be Naomi Osaka, who embodies a new breed of global sports icon and has a killer instinct on the courts. And finally. I would invite my father, who was a great athlete at Princeton in the 1950s and would love to talk to us.


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