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A Test For Unity

"For Unified Russia," Kostroma Oblast, August 2006.

"For Unified Russia," Kostroma Oblast, August 2006.

The long winter holiday season pretty much shuts everything down in Russia for a week or 10 days, which means that there is plenty of time to read all the "results of 2008" and "predictions for 2009" articles that are out there. And this year, in a time of global crisis, there is no shortage of dire predictions.

Russian economist Igor Panarin, for instance, has gotten a good deal of press attention (particularly in Russia, but abroad as well) for predicting that the financial crisis will lead to civil war in the United States and the partitioning of that country. He even suggested on Russia Today that Alaska will want to join the Russian Federation and that former Chukotka Oblast Governor and oligarch Roman Abramovich would make a good governor there. Watch out Sarah Palin, it appears that Vladimir Putin can see Alaska from his house too!

Not to be outdone, analyst Andrei Piontkovsky is predicting an 85 percent likelihood that the Russian Federation will collapse within one or two years. He sees the most likely scenario for the country in the coming months as a hunkering down of Putin and his coterie of "national-kleptocrats," featuring "pitiless" repression of dissent, and increasing ideological "fascistization," characterized by increased efforts to get Russia "off its knees" by "gathering the Russian lands" in the so-called near abroad.

Piontkovsky sees a small chance that Putin and the "national-kleptocrats" will be undermined by the "global-kleptocrats" (the leaders of which he identifies as Abramovich, former presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin --who was recently named board chairman of Norilsk Nickel -- and Nanotechnologies Corporation head Anatoly Chubais). Chubais, incidentally, has offered his own dire predictions about Russia's 2009, saying there is a 50 percent likelihood of serious social turmoil. Piontkovsky notes the "global kleptocrats" were the ones who installed Putin and the national-kleptocrats in power in the first place, but suggests that they no longer have the clout in Russia to set up a new regime. As a result, their "victory" over Putin would also lead to turmoil and, very likely, the collapse of Russia, in Piontkovsky's view.

The staid "Economist," of course, can't go out on a limb like Piontkovsky does, but it also predicts that "some political shift is inevitable."

The problem is not only the crisis, but the fact that the Putin political/economic system in Russia has no flexibility and only a tiny fraction of the country is personally invested in it. And instead of increasing the investment of average people in the stability of the system by, say, making elections fairer and more frequent, the Kremlin is moving in the opposite direction: extending terms for the few officials that are still actually elected, strengthening the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party's grip on the election process and politics at the regional level, and changing laws to make virtually any expression of discontent a matter of "extremism" or "treason." Piontkovsky is right when he sees a "bunker" mentality taking hold in Moscow. (Incidentally, Piontkovsky was recently acquitted of "extremism" charges for his analytical writings on Putinism.)

But if criticism becomes treason, then the Kremlin will find its circle of friends getting smaller and smaller. The daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta," could be the next victim, even though it is best characterized as a fellow traveler of Putinism, quietly urging liberal reforms around the edges of a system that it generally accepts and seemingly not fazed by the fact that its suggestions are never taken seriously. But in an editorial published on December 30, the paper came about as close to calling the emperor naked as it is possible for mainstream media in Russia to do these days. The paper says the ruling elite failed over the last eight years to establish democratic mechanisms that could make navigating the present crisis easier:

During this period some established democratic institutions could help -- when opposition leaders could have some natural means of coming forward with rational suggestions for solving problems. However, in the past few years the authorities have done everything to destroy any form of independence in this area. The process of elections is becoming rarer and rarer in Russian politics. And there is no other way to produce legitimate leaders. And in their absence, illegitimate leaders appear.

One can only hope that President Dmitry Medvedev doesn't read this piece too carefully and apply it too much to his own legitimacy problem.

The paper also notes that the emergence of the Putin-Medvedev tandem has closed off yet another important safety valve in the Russian political system -- criticism of the government by lawmakers and the president:

It is new in the life of our country that the president cannot criticize the prime minister, the government, or individual ministers. The Duma also can no longer criticize the cabinet of its own leader [Putin is the chairman of the majority Unified Russia party.] This path is unusual and, most likely, a mistake for a country where the executive branch traditionally plays a huge role in the lives of ordinary citizens. Governments and ministers make mistakes frequently. Criticizing them is natural vent for the head of state and for the public's representatives. Remember how deputies once criticized [former Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail] Zurabov, [former Economic Development and Trade Minister German] Gref, and [Finance Minister Aleksei] Kudrin, to the joy and relief of the entire country! And remember how the president's popularity rating soared when he harshly and decisively pulled the reins on his ministers!

It is true that in most cases such incidents were mere political theater, but they did have the calming effect that "Nezavisimaya" describes and were an important diversion of public attention at key moments.

When Unified Russia was just getting its start, back in the beginning of Putin's first premiership and early presidency, it was called the Unity party. It ran in the 1999 Duma elections under the slogan "Our Unity Is Our Strength," implying not so subtly that pluralism is weakness. Now that idea -- which is really the only ideological foundation of Putinism -- is being put to the test.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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