This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Sobyanin Wins! Navalny Wins! The Kremlin Wins?”
I felt something strange while watching Sunday’s Moscow mayoral election: excitement. It had real drama. Sergei Sobyanin’s margin diminished with every counted vote, hinting at the possibility of an unprecedented second round. Like everyone else, I was stunned at Alexei Navalny getting 27 percent of the vote. The election appeared so real it was surreal. Everything in Russia seemed so unpredictable . . . so alive. I too quickly jumped on the Navalny-giving-the-Kremlin-a-bloody-nose bandwagon. And then I thought otherwise.
The unpredictably, not to mention the meaning, of Moscow’s mayoral election depends on what you think the purpose was. If you think this election was about Navalny and his surprise showing, then he made the Kremlin shake in its boots. If you believe the poll was about re-electing Sobyanin, then sure he won, but he has little political capital to show for it. But this election wasn’t about Navalny, though he played an important role. It wasn’t even about re-electing Sobyanin, though that was a key goal. This election was really about the legitimacy of the Russian political system. Given Sunday’s results the plan seems to have worked.
What does legitimacy mean? No leader or ruling elite can rule by coercion alone. Even the most brutal dictator needs the consent of key constituencies to maintain the legitimacy to rule. The Putin system had unquestioned legitimacy for a decade. The politically active part of the population was lulled by prosperity. Everything, however, changed with the 2011-2012 protests. The system was shaken as an important sector, Moscow’s educated, cosmopolitan middle class, broke with Putin. They openly declared the Putin system a sham and its representatives as irrevocably corrupt.
Putin launched a two pronged solution to this problem. The first, and most visible, was a tightening of the political screws. The other was to enact a controlled opening of the political system. This was codified in two reforms in the final days Medvedev’s presidency: the easing of rules on party registration and returning elections to governors and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sunday was the first test of the electoral reforms. And indeed, more political parties participated and, in the case of Moscow and Ekaterinburg, opposition candidates made a strong showing. Most importantly, the status quo remained. United Russia or its affiliates retained political dominance. Everything went off without a hitch. Most of all, in the words of Putin, the vote was “legitimate and transparent” to boot.
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By Sean — 3 years ago
Gordon Hahn, analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and Adjunct Professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey. He is the author of several books, most recently of The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond. You can read his current analysis on Russia at his blog Russian and Eurasian Politics.Post Views: 723
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: 604
By Sean — 12 years ago
Andrei Illarionov has been a busy bee since resigning from the Putin government two months ago. He seems to be running around giving speeches, interviews, and now writing op-ed columns propagating his thesis that Russia is a corporatist state. I have to say, I’m starting to find some of his ideas about the Russian state and economy rather interesting. A recent op-ed particularly stands out. It was first published in Kommersant and then picked up by the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times.
His mantra is simple: Russia has changed since Putin came to power six years ago. I doubt many would disagree. But what is interesting is how it changed. The economic and political stability that followed the disastrous Yeltsin years was a result of economic and political centralization. Russia, Illarionov argues, is now less economically and politically free as a result. What is alarming to him is that at least on the economic front, this is a short term solution that is doomed to failure in a global economy.
Illarionov argues that the Russian state and economy is now “corporatist.” “The state has become “corporatized”;” he writes, “it has become a corporate enterprise. What does this mean?”
Changes in legislation and limitations on political activity have effectively devalued the shares held by citizens in what might be described as a publicly held company called “Russian State.” This company has been transformed into a privately held company which the nominal owners – Russian citizens – no longer control.
State-owned companies have become the assault weapons of the corporate state. Having mastered the main principle of state-corporatism – “privatize profit, nationalize loss” – they have turned to massive intervention in the private sector. The victims of this corporate expansion include Yuganskneftegaz, Sibneft, Silovye Mashiny, Kamov, OMZ, AvtoVAZ, Eastline.
Companies that are still in private hands resemble ever more closely their state-owned siblings. Any request from the state – whether it’s a donation to a “necessary” project or the sale of the company itself to “correct” buyers – is fulfilled. Declining is not an option. The fate of Yukos is known to all.
But that isn’t all. It’s not simply that corporations have become “state owned siblings,” it’s the type corporate state it has become. It isn’t just centralized and willing to use its power against political rivals like Khordorkovsky. The Russian corporate state under Putin, according to Illarionov, is clannish. It is driven by the ideology of “nashism.”
Politically, the corporate ideology may seem unclear: it does not look communist, or liberal, or nationalistic, or imperial. Instead, it is an ideology of “nash-ism,” or in English, “ours-ism,” in which subsidies, credits and powers are handed out to those who are “nashy.”
This ours-ism does not know national or ethnic boundaries. The former chancellor of a foreign country is made a member of the corporation and becomes “our man in Europe.” Meanwhile, a Russian businessman who created a company that brought billions into the national treasury turns out to be an “other” and is exiled to the depths of Siberia.
The entire might of the Russian State is thrown behind “our” members of the corporation, whether this means refusing to allow Kazakhoil to travel to Lithuania via a Russian pipeline, switching off electricity to Moldova or waging a “gas war” against Ukraine. Russian imperialism has taken a distinctly corporate image.
The point of the new model is to redistribute resources to “our own.” The rule of law is only for civilized countries. Fair business practices are only for countries that want to catch up with the developed world. Good relations with foreign neighbors are necessary only if Russia is interested in long-term development. The corporation has other goals.
Illarionov rightly points out that this model isn’t unique or new. Many countries practice it—Libya, Venezuela, Angola, Chad, Iran Cuba, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. And I would imagine you can throw China, and to an increasing extent, the United States. Russia has been practicing “nashism” for a while now. The Communist Party was based on this, and according to research on Stalin’s terror, breaking up nashism or its Soviet variants, semeistvennost (familyness) or khvostizm (tailism, that is people who followed you into positions on your coat tails) in the Party, and state and economic apparatuses was a main goal.
However, nashism in the 20th century might have detrimental effects for a nation in a global economy. Illarionov warns,
But choosing it today, at the outset of the 21st century, is nothing other than deliberately choosing the third-world model. More precisely, the model of a very specific group of countries in the third world whose long-term prospects are well known no matter how much money they get from oil, no matter how many pipelines they control at home and abroad, and no matter what saccharine stories they tell on TV.
It is a historical dead end. No country that has set off on this road has become richer or stronger or more developed. Nor will Russia. It will fall farther behind. And the price will be paid, as usual, by Russian citizens.
Sure Illarionov’s views are unabashedly pro-capitalist, if not neo-liberal, and one should question the “trickle-down” implications that inform his editorial. It seems that his binaried view that nashism is part and parcel to the Third World, and by implication not indicative of the West, is based on a idealized view of capital in Europe and the United States. Capital is based on nashism, no matter where you go. Is not the so-called “revolving door” or American CEOs and government office (Dick Cheney is only the best example) nothing short of nashism? Hasn’t the war in Iraq proven to be a prime example of Illarionov’s “privatize profit, nationalize loss” formula? I would say that the differences between Russia and the United States on this is one of degrees. Not to mention that the Russians are more honest and open about it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say as Illarionov has for Russia, that nashism structures the American state and economy. I don’t mean to draw similarities, only parallels.
If Illarionov is right, and I am thinking that based on the history of nashism in Russia, he is, then we might want to consider, as he himself suggests, whether the type of state Russia is or has become under Putin, and ask whether it is sustainable for the long term.Post Views: 307