Collective Learning and Regime Dynamics under Uncertainty: Labour Reform and the Way to Autocracy in Russia
The article questions the structural approach to autocratic transition that sees government as knowingly and purposely building autocracy, and contributes to the tradition emphasizing the plurality of possible regime developments and the role of contingency therein, by providing a more systematic treatment of such contingency. We offer a path-dependent theory of political change and use insights from cognitive institutionalism to show how ad hoc policy reform practices become accepted as a trusted way of interaction by political actors and how they “learn” their way into autocracy. This intuition is substantiated with a case-study of the labour reform in Putin’s Russia. The early 2000s marked a surge in uncertainty in Russian politics caused by the succession crisis and the profound political turnover it triggered. This uncertainty could have resolved in a number of ways, each leading to a different political development. We trace the actual way out of this uncertainty and show that the major factor to condition further regime trajectory was the way social reforms were conducted. The course of these reforms determined the ruling coalition and the institutions that ensure credible commitment within its ranks (the dominant party), and contributed to crowding out the political market and opposition decay.