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By Sean — 11 years ago
Initial reactions to Putin’s naming Viktor Zubkov Prime Minister quickly dismissed the latter as a potential successor. It is now emerging that perhaps this was a bit hasty. Kommersant is reporting that Zubkov is not ruling out a run for the Presidency, though he has no intention to join a political party. “If I achieve something as prime minister, I cannot rule out that this could happen,” Zubkov said when asked about his political aspirations. As of now, however, Zubkov is intent on focusing on restructuring the Russian cabinet. “I think that the structure of the government is faulty, and the administrative reform that is carried out isn’t very effective. Structural changes will be necessary and personnel will also be looked at.” Who exactly in the administration will be subject to scrutiny is as of now unknown. But the issues Zubkov intends to tackle include “the development of the country, social coalitions, sport, veterans, pensioners, and the military.” Now that the situation in Russia is stabilized, he says, “it is time to move forward.” And if he is the one to facilitate this “moving forward” he will do it as a non-partisan. “I am non-partisan and I will concentrate my attention on the work in the government,” he said. Spoken like a true technocrat.
And while Zubkov’s bureaucratic demeanor may make him dull, it also makes him a politically safe bet according to the Duma’s sitting parties. The pro-Kremlin parties–United Russia, Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party–all seem to approve in unison. Zubkov is assured Duma confirmation on Friday. The only lone voice of dissent is the Communist Party, which promises to cast its 50 votes against Zubkov. But such a protest vote will merely be a symbolic gesture. Zubkov only needs 226 votes to be confirmed. A number easily achieved by United Russia alone, which holds 300 votes. Still, United Russia’s parliamentary dominance hasn’t stopped the praise from Russia’s political establishment. LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky stated that “I think that this will be the best government of Russia, it will be of time tested professionals.”
And just like that the previously unknown head of the Russian Financial Monitoring Office has been catapulted into the Russian political stratosphere. Not a bad birthday president for Zubkov, who turns 66 on Saturday. And of course speculation about Zubkov possible future as Putin’s successor has given fodder to a number of potential theories about Russia’s political future. Namely, that the Zubkov selection is part of a grander scheme for Putin to remain puppet master after he leaves office in 2008.
But I think that the view that Putin is puppet master belies the reality of Russian elite politics. Even though there is constant talk of clans, factions, silovki, and other nefarious, but nevertheless corporate, political forces, the road always leads back to Putin as some kind of omnipotent Tsar that is not beholden to any those groups’ interests and influence. Reducing Russian politics to one man, as it’s been done since Kremlinology was first imagined, is such a misnomer that it verges on naivety. If the Russian elite is indeed a network of clans, then even the most powerful individuals are set with the task of juggling, adjudicating, and mediating those clans’ often disparate interests.
And if Zubkov indeed becomes a presidential “dark horse,” there might lie the genius of choosing him rather than one of the presidential front runners, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitiri Medvedev. The latter two are big fishes in the pond, who, without a doubt, have their own khvosty (tails) of patrons and clients trailing behind them. Having one of them lead the show will only tip the balance in favor of one faction over another. But naming an technocratic “outsider” like Zubkov might be the perfect solution to maintaining a delicate balance. After all, the Russian elite has class and political interests to maintain, and creating a situation that could spill into elite civil war is bad for everyone’s business. What a better way to keep the juices of elite prosperity flowing than to appoint someone as faceless, uninspiring, and technocratic as Putin was when he was named Prime Minister in 1999? Because if there is any lesson that should be learned from Putin’s tenure as President, it’s that his power stems from his ability to keep the forces balanced; to let the elite have their cake and eat it too. So in the end perhaps the search of a “successor” is really about finding the right manager.Post Views: 385
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: 836
By Sean — 10 years ago
Four hours and forty minutes. Two hours and six minutes of which were broadcast live on Russian TV. One thousand three hundred and sixty-four journalists. Over 100 questions from fifty-two reporters. Those are some heady stats. When the vozhd’ speaks, the media listens.
Putin appeared loose in his final showcase. Reuters described his performance as “mixed flirtatious banter with metaphors about snot and showed a gift for sarcastic brush-offs worthy of a stand-up comedian.” The snot references were to questions about his alleged hidden wealth and the hard man hours he put in as Prez. To the former he said that reports about his wealth were “rubbish . . . excavated from someone’s nose and then spread on those bits of paper”. To the latter, he said “Heads of state have no right to whine, or drool for any reason… If they are going to slobber and blow snot and say things are bad, bad, then that’s how it will be.”
One of my favorites was his response to Hillary Clinton saying he had no soul. “A state official must at least have brains,” he stuck back. Given how her Presidential bid is going, Putin might be on to something. He even gave a shout out to his “American partner” George W. Bush. “You have to make decisions that nobody else is in a position to make. They are not always pleasant decisions. It isn’t easy. Is it easy for George Bush? This is where the buck stops.” To questions asking him to guarantee the ruble’s stability he said, “What do you want? Do you want me to eat soil from a flower pot? Take a blood oath?” Jesus people, just because the man’s visage is hung all over Russia, doesn’t mean he’s God. Naive monarchism is so 19th century.
Indeed, Putin was not without humor or wit. Kommersant was even kind enough to pick out some of the his sure to be memorable aphorisms. Here’s the list.
“All these eight years I worked like a slave in a galley from morning to night.” (On his work as President)
“I don’t think that we need to sprinkle ashes on our heads and beat ourselves with chains to prove that everything is fine with us.” (On relations with Poland).
“Let them teach their own wives how to cook shchi!” (On international election monitors on the Russian presidential elections.)
“As we said during Soviet times: If you want to “bury” a person, you appoint him to agricultural work.” (On Dmitri Medvedev’s resolve and national projects)
“Don’t whine and blubber about every subject” (On the character of a president.)
“It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” (“Не говори гоп, пока не перепрыгнешь”) (On being named to the post of Prime Minister)
“What can a person without a visa say about Tchaikovsky’s music?” (On relations between Russia and the West)
“Everybody must hoe their area like Saint Francis, boom, boom, everyday.” (On the activities of ministers)
And if anyone can translate and explain the following to me, I’d appreciate it: “Как у нас в некоторых местах говорили, “шило в стенку и на боковую залечь”” (о возможности покинуть политику).
Putin wasn’t all just shits and giggles. He seemed annoyed at the repeated “third term” questions. Just take a look at the photo above. He looks like he’s reaching to rip someone’s heart from their chest.Post Views: 673