Since I haven’t been able to comment on the police brutality against the Dissenters March last weekend, I think one of the best reports in the media is Kommersant’s article “Dissenters Crushed.” Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
The police vans were full of people considered by the police to be instigators of the Dissenters’ March. One of them broke a window in the van, and journalists hurled themselves at the narrow opening: “Mr. Kasparov, what do you think of the actions of the police?” asked someone. Garry Kasparov managed to get out only a few words in English [emphasis mine—Sean], among which it was possible to distinguish “Kremlin” and “hell,” before the OMON cut short the interview and drove the press back with truncheons.
“Let him go, he’s fine, he’s just goofing off. He’s not a democrat,” coaxed journalist Viktor Shenderovich upon seeing police detaining a drunk man in a ski cap. “Now he will be,” promised the OMON officer. “Well, that’s true, a few whacks of your truncheon and anyone would turn into a democrat,” sniffed Mr. Shenderovich.
Along the way they encountered People’s Democratic Movement leader Mikhail Kasyanov, two dozen journalists, and around 50 marchers. The demonstrators were immediately surrounded by camouflaged OMON troops. “What’s with the press conference here!?” yelled a burly OMON officer into a megaphone. “Arrest them all! “Fucking journalists or not!” A minute later, after several photographers, a pair of print journalists, and a TV camera operator had been packed into waiting buses, the police went for Mr. Kasyanov. After a short scuffle, however, the former prime minister’s bodyguards managed to fend them off.
“But we don’t need to go to the metro, we’re going the other way,” said former presidential advisor Andrei Illarionov to an OMON officer from
Bashkiriain an attempt to reason with him. “You’re violating the constitution!” he charged, pulling a copy of the document from under his coat. In reply, the policeman raised his truncheon threateningly. “Arrest anyone suspicious!” shouted the OMON commander.
“Who’s suspicious?” asked one of his subordinates.
“They all are!”
“Pick these ones up,” ordered the commander, pointing at Oboron (“Defense”) movement coordinator Oleg Kozlovsky and a young woman with red hair.
“Will you also break their legs?” asked a Kommersant correspondent.
“We’ll break your fucking leg,” snarled the officer.
People leaned over their balcony railings in the apartment building next door. “You’re not people, you’re beasts!” cried a middle-aged woman in an apron from the second floor.
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By Sean — 6 years ago
Alexander Golts, editor of the liberal Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, has written an editorial in the Moscow Times which I think is emblematic of the misunderstanding of Putin’s power among Russia’s opposition. Entitled, “Nobody Is Listening to Putin Anymore“, the op-ed points to the recent scandal surrounding Alexander Bastrykin and Novaya gazeta‘s deputy editor Sergei Sokolov and Rosoboronexport, the Russian weapon export agency, allegedly sharing of ballistic missile technology with Iran as examples that Putin’s “power vertical” is collapsing.
The narrative runs thus: Golts suggests that Bastrykin personally ordered the apartment searches of Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, Ksenia Sobchak, and others as a way to divert attention from his own impending scandal. The scandal involves Bastrykin threatening the life of Sergei Sokolov for articles the journalist wrote suggesting Bastrykin was party of organized crime. Golts continues to explain Bastrykin’s order to ransack oppositionists’ apartments as a means “to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin in the hopes that his patron would shield him from the scandal.” Bastrykin apparently miscalculated. Putin didn’t shield him from the scandal, and the Chekist publicly apologized to Sokolov and Novaya gazeta for his “emotional outburst.” Golts’ point, however, is that the order to search oppositionist apartments for is an example of Bastrykin going rogue and bucking the power vertical.
Golts’ example of Rosoboronexport follows forthwith. If a Russian state agency is independently supplying Iran with ballistic missile tech, then Rosoboronexport and its head Anatoly Isaikin is bucking the power vertical for bureaucratic and/or personal gain. This assertion is bolstered by the US National Intelligence Council’s admittance that the Russian government “is not pursuing a policy in support of the Iranian missile program” and “is unable to control the activities of state companies and cannot prevent them from participating in illegal transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
[T]here is reason to believe that the power vertical Putin has tried to erect over the past 12 years is collapsing. Putin’s authoritarianism no longer resembles an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects. Now the regime looks more like a chaotic feudal system that has been weakened by overly independent and obstinate local chiefs.
Putin’s “new nobility,” as Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev in 2005 called the chekists in Putin’s ruling elite, have started to view their respective agencies as their personal property. In reality, they report to Putin on paper only. It has even reached the point where state agencies are developing their own domestic and foreign policies.
Thus, we don’t know for sure whether Bastrykin and Rosoboronexport head Anatoly Isaikin are carrying out state policy as defined by Putin as an authoritarian leader or are acting out of purely selfish interests. And it also leads to the more basic question of where Putin’s authority ends and where the new robber barons’ authority begins.
True, we don’t know if the tail is wagging the dog, the dog is wagging the tail, or if the tail is just wagging. Russian elite politics remains opaque. But my issue is more with Golts’ argument. Saying that Putin’s power vertical “is collapsing” assumes that it existed in the first place. In fact, the passage quoted above reveals a tension between the “power vertical” as becoming and already existing. So Golts writes, “the power vertical Putin has tried to erect over the past 12 years,” suggesting that the “power vertical” is still in becoming, but has yet to formally concertize. Yet at the same time, Golts writes, “Putin’s authoritarianism no longer resembles an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects,” indicating that Putin already has a power vertical in place that he exercises like an autocrat and his subjects dutifully carry out his decrees. So which is it? Is the power vertical in becoming or is it already being?
This is no mere philosophical question. Whether Putin has or hasn’t a power vertical informs the Russian opposition’s entire analysis. If Putin’s subordinates are “faithfully” carrying out his orders, then focusing on Putin as the alpha and omega of your movement’s message makes sense. Once the big bad Putin is deposed, one assumes things will inevitably be better. There is no need to formulate a social and economic program. There is no need to think about new political and social organization, power flows, and structures. Nor is there need to confront the real fissures between contradictory liberal, nationalist and left ideologies within the movement. As Kirill Kobrin rightly stated in this week’s Power Vertical Podcast, the Russian opposition’s focus on Putin is a strength and a weakness. It keeps them united in the short term, thus sustaining a movement, but fails to address real concerns in Russian daily life that could give it long term sustainability, as that would break the movement apart.
The problem is that the belief in Putin’s power vertical, not to mention that it now is collapsing, is a misdiagnosis. If Putin has managed to establish a power vertical then he is truly the most adept Russian leader in its 1000 plus year history. With a functioning and omnipotent power vertical, Putin has been able to do what Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and even Stalin failed to do. The fact is the power vertical as, in Golts’ words, “an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects” is an utter myth. This relation between the autocrat and his subordinates has never existed in Russia (and I would venture anywhere else). This is evident in one simple example. As Richard Sakwa points out in his The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, and the Medvedev Succession, by 2008, when Putin left office, over 1,800 of his presidential decrees had not been implemented (32). Clearly, Putin’s subjects were not carrying out his faithful decisions then too. Yet, in 2008, Putin’s power was considered unshakable. To suggest that “serious cracks in Putin’s power vertical are now apparent” only reinforces an illusion that misidentifies where power in Russia really lies: in an small elite on top of a vast bureaucracy of which Putin is a very powerful player, especially symbolically, but not a completely essential member.
Perhaps defining Putin’s power vertical as putting into practice all of the vozhd’s orders is a misnomer. Perhaps the power vertical is best viewed minimally as an albeit feeble disciplinary mechanism. It’s power is in part based on myth and part on actual legal power. Myth in the sense that Putin’s power vertical exists only in as much as others believe in it. Here the power vertical is merely symbolic power represented by the presidential signature and stamp on a document or the performance of Putin sitting at a desk grilling his subordinates. As long as those symbols maintain their influence, does the power vertical show any modicum of functioning. The only real concrete power of the vertical is Putin’s legal prerogative to sack anyone he pleases. But even here his agency is circumscribed because while theoretically everyone is expendable, some are more expendable than others depending on the circumstances. Russia remains a fragmented state, with power organized more in networks and circles than vertical structures. Putin is more a creature of the system than its owner. And ironically, the myth of the power vertical is more authoritative than the leader’s constitutional prerogatives. It is the former that gives the real substance to the latter.
Critics like Golts would do well to dispose of the power vertical myth all together. Not only does its sacred belief produce bad analysis, it engenders bad, and dare I say, stagnant politics. This is why the opposition’s “Manifesto for a Free Russia” is so empty, and another “March of Millions” on 7 October, Putin’s birthday no less, inspires little enthusiasm. Both acts re-inscribe the very myth that is the basis of Putin’s power. In order to ultimately go beyond Putin, one must get over him.Post Views: 717
By Sean — 6 years ago
The protests against Vladimir Putin. The prosecution of the protests’ activists. The series of laws directly or indirectly aimed at the street opposition: upping fines, the branding of NGOs funded from abroad as “foreign agents,” the re-criminalization of libel, the restricting the internet, and the proposed law on volunteers. Occupy Abai. Pussy Riot’s detention and trial. All of these have received much attention in the Western press, and rightfully so. However, I have to agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel’s recent call that “perhaps it’s time for some reporting on the millions of working or unemployed Russians who will bear the brunt of economic policies hatched by the Putin government and supported by many of its opposition critics.” As she astutely notes,
In a case replete with ironies, here’s the final one: even as Putin reaps political benefit from the resentments of this other Russia, his economic and social policies are poised to hit its citizens hardest—and his most prominent critics in the opposition are on board as well. Last month ushered in a fairly dramatic increase in utility and transit costs. And austerity, Russia-style, is coming to other sectors as well: neoliberal “reforms” are on the way in education, housing and pensions. These changes will mean socio-economic disaster for already-suffering Russians, many in regions far-flung from Moscow. What is little reported in the West is that Putin’s own critics, those who’ve led many of the street protests in Moscow, also back these measures. These include elite critics like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Boris Nemtsov and Ksenia Sobchak, once the Paris Hilton of Russia until she became its Pasionaria. Perhaps that should be no surprise: they’re not the ones about to get hurt.
There has been some question as to what vanden Heuvel means by “austerity.” And in regard to Russian macroeconomic policy, its overall Federal budgets, and general fiscal order, though there is some concern about the cost of Putin’s campaign promises, vanden Heuvel’s use of “austerity” might be a misnomer. But the devil is in the details, as they say. And the neoliberal reform she references without elaboration is the law “On Amendments to Individual Statutes of the Russian Federation in Connection with Improving the Legal Status of State (Municipal) Institutions” passed on May 8, 2010 and brought into force on July 1, 2012. This 200 plus page behemoth, which has local governments still scrambling to implement, effectively splits Russia’s public-sector institutions into two groups: “public institutions” and “new public-sector institutions.” The former includes national defense and security organs and larger medical institutions like psychiatry hospitals. The budget allocation of these organizations will remain the same. The latter, however, which includes the overwhelming majority of institutions, about 330,000, of health care, education, sciences and culture will be partially decoupled from the Federal budget and run according to market principles. The ideas behind the law are steeped in neoliberal assumptions that I thought only existed in the US and Britain. Namely, the law’s authors believe that Russia’s social institutions are bloated, inefficient, and moribund (okay, not much of an argument there) and therefore have no incentive to optimize and improve the quality of services to citizens. In the words of N. Mukhetninova, a critic of the law, the authors’ “intention is to transform the authorities’ existing public-sector network, which is inefficient and costly, into a highly efficient one (aimed at meeting the highest standards for the quality of the services provided) that is relatively cheap for the government.” The broader logic of 83-FZ is to realize Putin’s desire for a balance federal budget with a move so often utilized in the US: liberalizing public services like health care and education to performance as a means of “accountability” and cost saving.*
What does 83-FZ do? On the surface, 83-FZ has all the usual positive liberal claptrap. It speaks of institutional autonomy, budgetary transparency, and efficiency. But the “main intrigue” as Mukhetninova explains, is that the law puts these so-called “new public-sector institutions” at the whim of the market. Their budgets will no longer be calculated on previous spending, but will be subsidies based on fulfilling state assignments, which cannot be refused, but the subsidy for which can arbitrarily altered by municipal governments. The law doesn’t provide any standards for determining the norms or financial payment for fulfilled work. Moreover, by making these institutions “autonomous,” the state is relieved of any responsibility for their economic viability. This creates, in Mukhetninova’s words, “a fundamentally new stage of commercialization of the social sphere and the government’s dumping of its responsibility for the functioning of the social sphere on the citizens themselves.” Is this not austerity by otherwise neoliberal means?
Indeed, as many health care professionals, labor unions, educators, and cultural workers believe, 83-FZ will eventually lead to the privatization of Russia’s social services. Mekhetninova implies this with her claim that transforming the funding of public-sector institutions to subsidies for work rendered will ultimately result in “bankruptcy thereby causing a redistribution of ownership in the social sphere.” Basically, the fear is that the already existing virtual privatization of public-sector institutions by their senior management will allow the latter to become formal owners. This is an effective means to legalize public-sector bureaucrats’ longstanding practice of pilfering state institutions all the while transferring more of the costs for services to Russia’s citizens. The law already allows for a measure of this since its gives administrators the power to engage in income generating activity, i.e. to charge service fees, dispose of movable property (though there are limitations for valuable assets), and declare unused budget monies as income to be used in the following calendar year. All sounds good–public-sector institutions are being given the means to better allocate resources. However, all I can see is another means for bureaucrats to move public funds and property into their own pockets.
Granted, many of the fears espoused last fall about the abolition of free education did not come to fruition. However, the law only went into effect on July 1. So for the ultimate results of 83-FZ, positive or negative, remains to be see. Given the disaster of welfare liberalization in other contexts, I, for one, am not optimistic.
So where is the Russian opposition on all this? There are many groups that have been and are continuing to protest 83-FZ, but many of them are labor unions and small leftists organizations that often fly under journalists’ radar. There was a lot of opposition to its passage in 2010, but to no avail. But wariness of the law was visible even among the Party of Power. Barely half of the Federal Council voted for it. In contrast, the “stars” of the Russian opposition have been mostly mute. Thus, while vanden Heuvel’s assertion of austerity, Russian style can be debated (I happen to agree with her), there’s one thing’s she unfortunately spot on about: When it comes to social and economic matters there is more congruence than divergence between Putin and his opponents. After all, why should Ksenia Sobchak et al care? The answer to that question, I’m afraid, is that they don’t.
*It’s important to note that 83-FZ is connected to several other policies. Mekhetninova: “In connection with the latter circumstance, we cannot fail to point out the organic relationship between FZ 83 and another recent legal document produced by federal executive authorities: the Ministry of Finance Program for Increasing the Efficiency of Spending Budget Funds in the Period up to 2012, approved by the RF government on May 20, 2010. Section 8 of the program is aimed at “optimizing” the public-sector network, developing it with funds from extra-budgetary sources, and expanding competitive relations, further implementing market principles in the social sphere, in all of its components.” For a survey of welfare reform liberalization under Putin, see Linda Cook, Postcommunist Welfare States: Reform Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe, Cornell University Press, 2007, Chapter 4.Post Views: 1,736
By Sean — 9 years ago
The election circus in Sochi has some new developments.
The alleged polonium murderer Andrei Lugovoi won’t be running. The LDPR announced that it will go with a different candidate. According to the NY Times, the reason for the move is because Lugovoi “would have been at a disadvantage because he was not from the Sochi region, though it also seemed that his candidacy would have been awkward for the government.” I guess that awkwardness doesn’t extend to having him in the Duma. Oh well . . .
But the big news concerns this week’s piss ammonia chloride attack on “Kremlin critic” Boris Nemtsov. As I said in a post on the incident, Nemtsov immediately charged Nashi with the assault. Nashi has not only emphatically denied the charge, they have also decided sue Nemtsov for court for the “slander.” “The “Nashi” Movement is scandalized by the accusation,” reads a Nashi press release, “and demands from Nemtsov a public apology and compensation for damage to out honor and business reputation in the amount of 1 million rubles.”
This isn’t the first time Nashi has been involved in a lawsuit over “honor.” Last February, “Kremlin critic” and Western media darling Garry Kasparov sued Nashi for insulting his “honor.” Nashi won. Kasparov remains dishonored.
Was the attack really carried out by Nashi? Like I said, the incident corresponds with their MO though splashing chemicals on their enemies is a new tactic. There is speculation that the she-male who distracted Nemtsov was in fact a Nashi activist from Ryazan named Konstantin Markov. According to Novaya gazeta, Sergei Ezhov, a Natsbol from Ryazan, recognized Markov despite his feminine disguise. Novaya presented a photo of the attacker alongside a pic of Markov for comparison.
The two figures do look similar. Both have the same square jaw and triangular nose. But so do many Russian men, and particularly the ultra-Slavic specimens Nashi seems to attract. Unfortunately, the key evidence, Markov’s bulging Adam’s apple, is hidden in the attacker’s photo. Where’s Scooby and the gang when you really need them.
Sometimes you gotta love the idiocy of Russian politics.
Photos: Novaya gazetaPost Views: 488