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The power vertical appears to be in trouble.

I don't mean this blog, we aren't going anywhere (at least I hope not). I mean Russia's power vertical (from which this blog derives its name) -- the centralized, authoritarian, integrated, and unitary system of executive power that Vladimir Putin has painstakingly built over the past decade.

Writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta today, Igor Naumov observes the following:

The government is not exactly in a rush to carry out the president's orders or respond to his criticism. Dmitry Medvedev called out the government for slowness in execution of his anti-crisis instructions three days ago but not one Cabinet member has so much as responded. Experts note the startling difference between bureaucracy's readiness to follow orders from the Kremlin today and when Vladimir Putin was sitting there.

The reasons for this are pretty clear. The political structure Putin built over the past decade was based on a vast system of patronage that, thanks to high oil and gas prices, allowed the Kremlin to purchase the loyalty of Russia's sprawling bureaucracy and at least the tacit consent of a critical mass of the population.

Here's how Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin put it when I spoke to him about the emerging political crisis:

The vertical is not as strong as it seemed. It is based on buying the loyalty of officials with the help of oil funds. The bureaucratic class gives its loyalty to the center and the center closes its eyes to their corruption...When oil and gas prices were high and when the economy was growing, it worked well. Bureaucrats were afraid to show disloyalty to their bosses because if they were fired they would be outsiders. But when gas and oil prices are low and the economy falters, it is not possible to buy everybody's loyalty.

Petrodollars, in short, were the lubricant that kept the system functioning. And now that these are drying up, the arrangement is breaking down with unpredictable consequences.

A few trends, however, are already visible. Divisions in the elite -- both within Moscow and between the center and the regions -- are getting sharper. The most noticeable, of course, in the apparently worsening relations between Putin and Medvedev, or at least between their respective teams. Here's how Yevgeny Volk of the Heritagte Foundation's Moscow office put it in an interview with RFE:

The Russian elite has never been united. There were always fierce battles for resources and there were always grievances. But when there are colossal resources from high oil and gas prices, these conflicts can be managed. But now, with the pie shrinking, the battle among the elite is becoming hotter and the conflicts are getting sharper. I don't rule that there will be a conflict between Medvedev and Putin. Neither one of them wants to take personal responsibility for the worsening economic situation. This is especially important for Putin given his plans to return to power.

Moreover, as Oreshkin pointed out, the group of security service veterans close to Putin -- people like First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev -- have a very different notion of how to deal with the economic crisis than the economists like Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin who are close to Medvedev:

The Putin group favors strengthening administrative pressure. The Medvedev group thinks the authorities need to do more than make threats and bang their fists on the table. They think there needs to be a better understanding of economic interests and rational economic behavior.

This is all getting very interesting very quickly. In our interview today, Volk said that a year ago the situation in Russia resembled that in the Soviet Union in the early-to-mid-1970s, when high oil prices fuelled an aggressive foreign policy abroad and facilitated a relatively stable political situation at home. Today, Volk says, the situation reminds him of the mid-to-late 1980s -- and we all know what followed that.

I'll be following this story closely and plan to have a longer feature on the subject in the coming days.

-- 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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