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They're ratcheting up the machinery of repression! A crackdown is obviously just around the corner.

The elite is mired in clan warfare and the economy is collapsing! We're clearly headed for chaos and instability.

Recent commentary on Russia has tacked back-and-forth between these two apparently contradictory narratives -- the creeping police state vs. looming anarchy. This blog, of course, is no exception,

Signs that the authoritarian system Vladimir Putin and his team built over the past decade is about to get even tougher are not hard to see.

A so-called judicial reform curtailing jury trials and broadening the definition of treason will make it much easier for the authorities to criminalize dissent. The rushed effort to extend the presidential term from four to six years is clearly designed to facilitate Putin's return to the Kremlin and keep his team of KGB veterans in power indefinitely. Crude nationalism and nasty xenophobia has been the norm, reaching new heights with Russia's war with Georgia in August.

But there is also compelling evidence that Putin's vaunted power vertical is starting to go wobbly.

Protests in Vladivostok and other cities over a deeply unpopular hike in auto-import tariffs have severely spooked the elite. A controversial military reform will put hundreds of thousands of officers out of work, creating a potential source of instability. Regional leaders like Tatarstan's Mintimer Shaimiev are becoming less shy about defying the Kremlin.

And there are fresh signs of tension within the ruling diarchy of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. According to a recent article in the weekly "Novoye vremya," Russia's titular head of state and its de facto ruler are at odds about how to deal with the mounting economic crisis:

The president met with a group of experts on December 26 and they presented him with a picture of impending economic catastrophe. The experts explained that the disaster was inevitable even if the price of Urals crude remained at $30 per barrel, the Central Bank permitted devaluation of the ruble, and the government kept its promises of financial aid to a select group 295 companies. Medvedev was so impressed that he immediately classified the information and had it sent to the premier. Putin, however found the president's initiative distasteful. People in the know say Putin interpreted Medvedev's meeting as an attempt to take anti-crisis management out of his hands. Government insiders claim that Putin by and large has no use for expert recommendations.

Citing unidentified "insider" sources, "Novoye vremya" reports that Medvedev's allies in the State Duma are trying to water down pending legislation expanding the definition of treason and espionage. Putin favors the changes, but Medvedev is trying to "make it as mild as possible."

Meanwhile, Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, writes on his blog that Russia's business community is becoming increasingly disillusioned with Putin's government:

Thus far, the Russian government’s feverish moves to combat the economic downturn have done little to improve the economy. The emergence of the list of 295 strategic enterprises the government is bailing out has produced serious tension within Russia’s business community. The enterprises not privileged to join the list are seeking to have a place at the trough. The lucky privileged ones are not completely happy with the state of affairs, though. The point at issue is that in return for the bailout the government requires corporations to fully disclose their business profiles. This makes companies highly vulnerable, what with acute competition and widespread corruption. The government uses the information the companies provide as business manipulation and control levers. According to the analysis of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, it works out that the government bailout is exacerbating stockholders’ plight rather than improving it.

So what is happening here?

It seems the system Putin built is running into the same brick wall today that the Soviet Union hit in the mid-1980s. In both cases, an economy dangerously dependent on commodities prices crashed when world energy prices tanked.

And what happens next is anybody's guess.

In the 1980s, the main debate within the Soviet elite was between those who wanted to address the crisis by imposing tighter discipline and those who favored loosening up the system.

Yury Andropov briefly tried the former -- seeking to modernize the Soviet economy while at the same time preserving an authoritarian political system in which the KGB would have a leading role -- but he died after serving as Soviet leader for just 15 months.

Mikhail Gorbachev, of course, then tried the latter -- attempting a simultaneous political and economic liberalization -- precipitating the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Putin and his closest allies revered Andropov (most of them joined the KGB in the mid-1970s when he ran the spy agency) and tried to establish a new version of his "authoritarian modernization" over the past decade. It all looked successful when oil prices were soaring. But now, the lack of diversification in Russia's economy is exposing Putin's economic miracle as a mirage.

But history isn't exactly repeating itself (it never does). Unlike in the 1980s, there is nobody with the clout and political will to pick up the reform mantle and seize the moment. Despite his recent friskiness, Medvedev doesn't appear to fit the bill.

So for the time being at least, the choice appears to be one between Putin's teetering authoritarianism and chaos. And as long as that is the choice, most Russians will choose the former.

-- Brian Whitmore

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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