My latest contribution to Pajamas Media “Why Putvedev?” is up. There isn’t much new in it for frequent readers of this blog. Hopefully, it will give a wider audience a different opinion about the Russian Presidential Elections. Also I highly recommend Andrew Wilson’s analysis, “Russia’s Post-election Balance” on Open Democracy. It seems that we share some similar opinions.
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By Sean — 4 years ago
The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.
Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.
Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:
“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”
While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.Post Views: 551
By Sean — 10 years ago
The only thing more predictable than United Russia’s victory on Sunday, is the West’s virtually unanimous condemnation of the elections. A spokesman from the German government called them “Neither a free, fair nor democratic election.” The Swedish forgien minister said Russia is a “steered democracy.” A European observer call them “not a level playing field.” U.S. President Bush gave Putin no congradulations, instead making one of his typical responses, “I said we were sincere in our expressions of concern about the elections.” I think it’s time to start translating Washington’s newspeak “expressions of concern” as “We don’t give a shit but I have to say something.” The only Western leader who broke step was France’s Nicholas Sarkozy. In a phone call to Putin, Sarkozy congratulated Putin on United Russia’s victory.
As a whole, however, the post-election reporting is so uniform that the only thing that reporters seemed to prove is that they are somewhat adept at using a thesaurus.
Just take a look at some of the headlines:
The LA Times: “Russian Elections Called a Sham“
The NY Times: “A Tale of Two Strongmen“
The Guardian: “A Managed Election“
The Wall Street Journal: “The Allure of Tyranny“
The Washington Post: “In Russia, the Backward March to Czarism Continues“
No need to read them. I think you get the picture from the headlines. Most intriguing, however, is how the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times lump Putin and Venuzela’s Hugo Chavez into the same bunch: strongmen and tyranny. And in a turnabout, the NY Times writes, “Who would have ever thought that Mr. Chávez could seem more palatable than Mr. Putin, who has the stamp of international respectability as a member of the group of leading industrialized nations? The United States and Europe must let Mr. Putin know that his days of respectability are fast running out.”
The Wall Street Journal even waxed a bit philosophical in its attempt to explain why the Putins and Chavezes of the world have a certain “allure.” To this, Bret Stephens writes that the desire for tyranny “springs from sources deep within ourselves: the yearning for a politics without contradictions; the terror inscribed in the act of choice.” Wow. The WSJ better watch out because it might start sounding like pomo-kings Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. “Everyone wants to be a fascist” the latter claimed in an essay of that title in 1977.
The greater irony of the Stephens’ statement that people have a “yearning for a politics without contradictions” and immobilized by “the terror inscribed in the act of choice” is that this is clearly the case for most Western reporters and politicians in regard to Russia. For them Russia is truly a place without contradiction. It has no mixture. No complexity. It’s politics can only be understood via its reduction. The Kremlin has made a great effort to make Russians think that Putin = Russia. That he is its alpha and omega. In a strange many reports think this too. It’s just that the Western media’s evaluation of Russia is merely the black to the Kremlin’s white. If Putin really rules by an “elaborate hoax” as Stephens claims, then West’s unanimous inversion of it proves that they too have been dazzled by Putin’s trickery. Perhaps many reporters’ inability to understand Russia on its own terms is also an example of “the terror inscribed in the act of choice.”
Nevertheless, there were two comments that dared to veer away from the predictable. First a commentary in the Independent by Mary Dejevsky and the second an opinion by Tony Koron in Time Magazine, of all places. Dejevsky dares to remind her readers that:
[T]he implications of Sunday’s elections may be rather different from those drawn by an international consensus that habitually presupposes the worst. If the elections were, as they were bound to be, a referendum on Putin’s eight years in power, the judgment was strongly positive.
But given Russia’s strong economic indicators, Putin’s undisputed personal popularity, and the sense of national dignity his presidency has helped to restore, the result was unlikely to be otherwise. A strong swing against Putin would have been more suspicious than the vote of confidence United Russia obtained. The elections may not have been as free, and certainly not as fair, as they should have been, but the result is not out of line with Russia’s public mood.
She also suggests that most commentators obsession with apocalyptic visions of “Tsar” Putin have missed the real and unfortunate story: the Russian political process has become ossified. As she rightly points out, United Russia’s victory was no more victorious than in 2003. Further, the far-right and far-left have dropped from the political scene leaving Russian politics the domain of the political center. “The parties represented in the new Duma, and their leaders, will be essentially those that have dominated the past decade of Russian politics.” So while those commentators who wish there to be an electoral revolution with every poll may stomp their feet in frustration, Russians can now breath easy. The post-Soviet “Time of Troubles” is now officially over.
It is this victory for stability that makes Tony Koron’s piece in Time so interesting. Putin has been compared to a lot of things, most of them being the vile villains of History (this is despite the fact that Putin sees himself as a Russian Franklin Roosevelt). But Koron likens Putin to another master of American politics: Ronald Reagan. There is no doubt that comparing Putin to American conservatives’ demigod will make them shutter. But hear Koron out:
The explanation for Putin’s popularity may be found in certain similarities to the man often credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union. It’s not that the former KGB man has any policy preferences or even a political style in common with Ronald Reagan, the great icon of contemporary American conservatism. But in the sense that he has made Russians feel good once again about their country, his appeal is Reaganesque.
Reagan’s own popularity — even among many Democrats — owed less to his specific policies (tax cuts, arms buildup) than to his overall success in restoring Americans’ national pride and optimism. If the Carter era had been associated with domestic economic woes and a string of geopolitical defeats that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan managed, almost as soon as he took office, to convince the public that a new “morning in America” had broken, by getting tough with U.S. adversaries on the global stage.
Talk about the things that make you go, “Hmmm . . .”Post Views: 175
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: 213