This weeks Russia! Magazine column, “The Russian Opposition: Between Despair and Vanguard,”
Earlier this month, Sergei Shelin wrote that a “perfect storm” threatens Russia. If that storm hits, he argued, it would bring the Putin system to suspension. Whether Shelin’s doomsday forecast has any merit demands the powers of soothsayers and palm readers. Political science is, in many ways, as prescient as meteorology. Still, amid the Kremlin bulldog fights, economic jitters, and provincial grumbling, Shelin carves out a slight role for the Russia population in this impending drama. “The election day in September,” he writes, “will be a landmark of discontent, whichever way we get to it. But this discontent by itself will hardly be strong enough to seriously shake [the system’s] foundations. Maybe it will stir it a little.” A little. Maybe. But if a stirring is in store, then at what state do we find the Russian protest movement? If “The Dynamics of Protest Activity: 2012-2013,” a new report from Olga Kryshtanovskaya’s sociological laboratory, is even half correct, any stir might inject some much needed new blood into the Russian opposition. A lot has happened in two years. The movement that exploded into the streets of Moscow in winter and spring 2011 has mutated. Pessimism and apathy may have thinned its ranks, but standing firm is a smaller, more dedicated and determined core.
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.
On Sunday, by all accounts, Vladimir Putin will be elected President of the Russian Federation for a six year term with the option of running again in 2018. The polls don’t lie. The last Levada Center poll, places Putin at 66 percent with Gennady Ziuganov at a distant 15 percent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 8 percent, Mikhail Prokhorov, 6 percent, and Sergei Mironov, 5 percent. The second round possibility is now a fantasy. Even without rigging the polls, Putin is slated to win with 50+1 for a first round victory. It’s too soon to speculate if Putin will indeed remain in power until 2024. A lot can happen in six years. If recent events are any indication, a lot can happen in three months. For even though Putin will be victorious, that victory has happened in unfamiliar conditions.
Indeed, the Russian presidential election has been anything but ordinary. Sure, the official cast of characters remains virtually identical to past contests, save a few additions. Communist Party stalwart, Gennady Ziuganov still plays the role of “loyal opposition in-chief,” the aging face of a Communist Party that has the organizational resources to actually present a political alternative to Putin, but lacks the so-called “Leninist will” to adapt to present political conditions. Part of that adaption, however, would require dumping Ziuganov and forsake its aging electorate, something the KPRF mandarins and rank and file are still unwilling to do. Opposite Ziuganov is Vladimir Zhironovsky, another perennial “loyal oppositionist.” Zhirik plays the harlequin in this grand performance, adding outrageous, comic relief to a show already thin on drama. In a way, Zhirinovsky reflects the whole process itself, a clown for a clownish spectacle. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, the new addition to the cast. Prokhorov serves as a kind of Khodorkovsky-lite (since the real Khodorkovsky is less pliable and, well, in jail for the foreseeable future). An oligarch who “made” the bulk of his wealth in the “loans for shares” scheme that saved Boris Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 Presidential election, Prokhorov, unlike Khodorkovsky, not only understood the rules of the game, but also played them correctly. But the biggest question that has dogged Prokhorov is not his past, but whether he’s a Kremlin project or not. I suspect that he’s a mixture. One thing is clear to me after reading Julia Ioffe’s profile of him in the New Yorker is that Prokhorov’s biggest obstacle is that he’s a sleazeball. Bringing up the rear is Just Russia’s candidate, Sergei Mironov. His candidacy only inspires one question: Who’s he?
Then there is Putin. Yes Putin. Not much to say about the man except perhaps, as the star of the show, we’ve seen his ability to play multiple personalities. During this campaign, we’ve seen Putin as the defender of stability, Putin the xenophobe, Putin the strongman, Putin the liberal, and Putin the populist. If there is anything Masha Gessen got right in her new book on the man, it’s the title. Putin is indeed a man without a face, and it’s this facelessness that has made him so effective. Given the choices on the ballot, Putin ironically serves as the political moderate. But Putin’s chameleon-like abilities also make him a perfect totem for his supporters and detractors alike. He serves as both good and evil, corrupt and uncorruptible, hero and villain. Indeed, Putin is a man of contradiction. He rebuilt the Russian state, but in doing so has contributed to its ossification. He has rebuilt the Russian economy, but in doing so made it too inflexible. Putin facilitated the creation of the middle class, but in doing so created his most challenging opposition. Putin vanquished oligarch patronage, and in doing so helped create new patrons. Unfortunately, in resurrecting Russia from the smuta of the 1990s, Putin has had to restore some of the worse historical aspects of Russian statecraft: centralization, personalization, and patrimonialism. In such a system, Putin is the most indispensable and dispensable figure. Indispensable because as the center of the Russian political system, he prevents the whole thing from collapsing. But as that center, Putin also ensures the system a slow and decrepit march to suspension. Given that Putin will be sticking around for at least six more years, it can be assured that so will the contradictions.
The Rise of the Bandar-log
This presidential election also has a new addition to the cast: the Bolotnaya protesters. They weren’t officially hired to play a role, that is unless you believe all the conspiracy theories that they are paid US agents. It’s more like they’ve pushed themselves on to the stage, a motley Greek chorus whose disparate voices have been cauterized into a collective cry for “fair elections.” Liberals, nationalists, communists, anarchists, and their fellow-travelers make up their political palate. The movement, if it can be called that, was conceived on September 24 when Putin announced he was running for election, born during the parliamentary elections on December 4 with outrage against electoral fraud as its first cry, and since has matured into a political force, and if not then at least political irritant to Putin’s re-election bid.
The Bandar-log have captured the political imagination of those at home and abroad, as evidence in the showering of comparisons to the Arab Spring, the colored revolutions in the mid-2000s, the handmaidens of a new Perestroika, and even the American Civil Rights Movement. Comparisons, especially historical ones, are always tricky because they suggest a large measure of similitude. Thus for the protests to be akin to the Arab Spring, Putin must be a Mubarak and Russia, Egypt. Hardly. For the colored revolutions, there must be an opposition candidate strong enough to make the elections contestable. He or she doesn’t exist. For a new Perestroika to be on the horizon, today’s Russia must resemble the Soviet Union. There’s no need to exaggerate. As for the Civil Rights Movement . . . huh?
This not to say that events in Russia are isolated from the global uprisings of 2011. They are not. Revolutionary upheavals are never contained. We’ve seen this too many times–1789, 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989–to discount their contagiousness. While Russia looks nothing like North Africa, it is hardly immune to the infectiousness of its enthusiasm and symbolic power. Indeed, the uprisings in Russia are part of global reconfiguration of mass politics into a more ideologically amorphous, leaderless, network based, social media driven phenomena. In them inhabit revolutionary echoes of the past, which are reconfigured, for better or for worse, toward an undetermined future. What is striking about many of these uprisings, and here Russia is included, is that there is no future program of utopian or technocratic nature. Their platforms are mostly ethically laden calls for dignity and recognition. The rest is made up as they move forward.
This is certainly the case in Russia. The repeated protester mantra that “We want reforms, not revolution” is not just a tactic to keep contradictory forces together, a trauma of past revolutionary experiments, or indicative of its class makeup. Rather the mantra is born out of an ideological moment in Russia where nothing beyond reform is imaginable. In this sense, Russia is already a liberal society.
But what kind of liberalism? That is the question. Will it be the liberalism of Putin that allows for the ravages of economic globalization to eat away at the social and economic fabric of Russian society all the while funneling the benefits into the few oligarchic hands? Or will it be the liberalism of Bandar-log, who if they ever gain a measure of influence will abandon their left and nationalist allies, for a less crooked, but no less neoliberal capitalism? Thus when it comes down to the standoff between Bolotnaya and Putin, the disagreements are about the rules, not the game.
That said, the protests in Russia have unleashed more than a middle class yearning for power. In a fascinating essay, Maria Chekhonadskikh and Alexei Penzin detail the more molecular political explosion that has occurred since December 4. Under the slogan “You can’t even imagine/represent us!” (Vy nas dazhe ne predstavlyaete!), a number of smaller radical initiatives have grown that have mostly flown under the media’s radar:
The protestors’ distrust of liberal oppositional leaders has provoked the mass self-organization of people who wanted speak about their issues and make different suggestions on the tactics of struggle. For example, at the Sakharovsky Prospect rally on December 24th, there were alternative platforms of students, teachers, cultural workers and traditional civil movements. For example, during the meeting there was an open people`s mic and workshop “Making your slogans”, organized by Union for Cultural Workers and Occupy Moscow Movement. Every day, new alternative committees, platforms and activist initiatives have emerged since January 2012. This “constitutive power” of the people is growing and is more aware of the stalemate of representative politics of any sort. The recent rallies and actions on February 4th and 26th demonstrated exactly this – the joyful creativity of a network-organized multitude of protesters and their distrust of any forms of traditional and authoritarian political leadership.
One cannot predict now how and at what moment the growing protest will reach its peak, nor when it will be able to dismantle the regime of so-called “managed democracy” dominating Russia for the last 10 years. Probably, the protests will be so strong that, after March 4th, the situation will drastically change again. At the same time, many activists are thinking about long-term struggle and putting their hopes in the democratic elaboration of a more socially and economically attuned political agenda, dealing with topics of the global crisis of neoliberalism and the question of social justice. But something irreversible has already happened –mass politicization and a rising political consciousness cannot be stopped and trapped in banal mantras of representative democracy. This situation of openness and uncertainty itself is an achievement of the movement, which indeed was unthinkable only three moths ago in the midst of the despair of imagining Putin’s uncanny “stability” for the next 6 to 12 years.
There are many echoes here, mostly of Italian Autonomist Marxism, particularly that of Antonio Negri with the references to joy, creativity, network, and multitude. It is here, hopefully, in the formation of a constitutive power that abandons the yoke of liberal hesitancy that Russia’s brightest political future dwells. There can be no real democracy without social justice, and on this last point the liberals of Bolotnaya are virtually silent.
In the meantime, the liberals of the Bandar-log remain the force in play, and its injection on to the political scene has completely transformed the Russian presidential election. After all, who is Putin running against? It certainly isn’t Ziuganov, Zhirinovsky, Prokhorov, or Mironov. The vast majority of Putin’s memorable comments, warnings, and threats have been directed to the Bolotnaya crowd. The utilization of the counter-protest by Putin’s camp has turned the struggle into an almost schoolyard battle, perhaps not unlike Putin’s childhood fisticuffs. Each side endeavors to tell the other: “I have more friends than you do.” It appears that at least in the short term, post-election Russia will feature more protest tit-for-tats of similar ilk.
The Road Forward
As that great philosopher Donald Rumsfield said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” We know Putin, but which Putin Russia will get is unknown. We know the opposition, but whether it can sustain and build is unknown. We know the Russian people, at least some of us like to imagine we do, but they remain the biggest unknown of all. The question, as the former Defense Secretary put it, is about the unknown unknowns. A heavy canopy of unknown unknowns hangs over the Russian political landscape. This, I think, is best encapsulated by the ratcheting up of rhetoric in the last week producing an eerie specter of violence. There is suspicion from both sides that the other will try spark something. The language of provocation is at its height. Blood figures too often in commentary. For example, I was personally struck by the amount of times Viktor Shenderovich mentioned “the spilling of blood” as a possibility in an interview on Ekho Moskvy. Each side may say that violence is a “lose-lose,” but the necessity of making that conscious articulation suggests that the haunting presence of violence is there. And if violence realized, by intent or accident, it would lead Russia into the greatest unknown unknown of all.