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Power and elites in Russia: How to run an authoritarian state.

On 8 March NDUC/Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies presented its Russia Programme.

Seminar summary

The seminar was opened by Professor Katarzyna Zysk, who noted that the Russian regime, on the one hand, relies on institutions and a functioning legal system that regulate the economy. On the other hand, in order to stay in power, the regime has to uphold elite privileges. This in turn creates practices that undermine the rule of law, constitute a breeding ground for corruption and red tape, weaken property rights, and in general complicate policies of economic development. This dichotomy between the need to maintain a functioning legal order and institutions while at the same time accommodating elites with privilege create tensions. The situation in Russia has been further aggravated by almost five years of Western sanctions and a lack of structural economic reforms. These complex intra-elite dynamics and the way they influence Russian politics, economic development and legal practice was namely the core topic of the seminar. 

Håvard Bækken, Senior FellowDr Håvard Bækken shared some insights from his book on law and power in Russia and quasi-legal practices. The law functions also as a tool to maintain an authoritarian regime, with selective law enforcement as a means to preserve stability and elite power. Selective law enforcement is founded in weak and incoherent laws. Enhanced by legal nihilism in the population, legal formalism, and personal influence over legal processes, the weak and incoherent laws make everyone—not just journalists and dissenters—vulnerable to selective law enforcement. Bækken also discussed developments in the legal domain and state building under President Putin, especially during his first two terms, which witnessed the emergence of a "super elite" that unites political and economic power.

Ingerid Opdahl, Associate Professor Dr Ingerid Opdahl shared insights from her forthcoming book on privilege and property in relations between energy companies and the Russian state. Opdahl addressed the state's and the companies' mutual dependence for security, welfare etc. In authoritarian regimes, this mutual dependence is also crucial for political stability. Heads of large state companies must accept that they have a political role to play in addition to their managerial responsibilities, be that charitable programmes or broader social responsibilities. Sometimes, they must even be prepared to acquiesce when they find that their company no longer belongs to them. In recent elections, and in the 2018 presidential election especially, large state companies played a role in getting out the vote. Ingerid also discussed the role of informal taxation, which may also include keeping people with a good connection on the payroll. This can be considered a form of "tax" that companies pay on their own initiative.

Dr Richard Connolly concluded the presentations, sharing insights into the effects of Western sanctions on the Russian economy as discussed in his recent book on the topic.

Dr Richard Connolly via Skype

Richard Connolly, Director, Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham & Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House.

The sanctions imposed on Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused some initial disruption, said Connolly. The worst effects of the sanctions, however, were over already by spring 2015. Russia's response consisted of a selection of ameliorating policies. Firstly, the political economy has been increasingly securitised and is today much more securitised than before. Secondly, there has been an active and targeted "russification", whereby foreign imports have been substituted by domestic production. Thirdly, foreign economic relations have been diversified away from Western countries. While there are both winners and losers in any political or economic process; overall, the Russian system of political economy has demonstrated an ability to divert resources to priority areas of public policy. The sanctions have thus exerted greater impact in less prioritised policy areas. While the sanctions have had an effect, this has been modest and politically acceptable for the Russian authorities, according to Connolly. As a result of Russia's response to the sanctions, Russia has reduced its vulnerability to external pressure. Connolly predicts that new sanctions emerging from the United States are likely to encounter the same broad type of response.

Summary by Dr Ingvill Moe Elgsaas

Q&A with the participants


Like all heads of state, authoritarian leaders rely on functioning legal institutions to regulate the economy and everyday affairs. They, too, face expectations to keep law and order and deliver on economic promises. Nevertheless, authoritarian regimes must also sustain elite privileges.

Privileges contribute to undermining equality before the law, they threaten property rights, and hamper economic reform. In Russia's case, sanctions and a lack of reform create additional tensions.

At this seminar by the IFS Russia Programme, we discuss how elite concerns shape politics, economic development and legal practice in Russia. We will also draw attention to implications for how to approach Russia.


09.00 Registration and coffee

09.30 Welcoming remarks. Director of Research IFS, Professor Katarzyna Zysk

09.40 Law and Power in Russia. Making Sense of Quasi-legal Practices. Håvard Bækken, Senior Fellow IFS.

10.00 Privilege and Property. Energy Companies and the State. Ingerid Opdahl, Associate Professor IFS and head of Russia Programme. 

10.20 Coffee break

10.30 Sanctions and Political Economy in Russia. Richard Connolly, Director, Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham & Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House. Connolly will participate via Skype.

10.50 Panel discussion and Q&A. Moderator: Jardar Østbø, Associate Professor IFS.

11.30 Light lunch

Publisert 8. mars 2019 09:00.. Sist oppdatert 27. august 2019 08:26.