Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Pokazukha Liberalization

Televisions in a Moscow shop showing an interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2009.
Televisions in a Moscow shop showing an interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2009.
Is it real or is it pokazukha?

This is usually the first question on the minds of Kremlin-watchers when something happens to suggest high-level infighting among Russia's ruling elite. It comes up whenever there are signs of division in the ruling tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev (and the order I listed them here was no accident). And it certainly should be question number one whenever there are rumblings in or near the corridors of power about liberalizing the system.

Look! Putin and Medvedev sent very different messages about modernization at a State Council meeting. Is a rift really opening up in the tandem over policy? Or is this just for show? Is it real, or is it pokazukha?

Holy cow! Federation Council Speaker and erstwhile Putin ally Sergei Mironov publicly criticized Russia's national leader and then got into a noisy public spat with the ruling Untied Russia party. Is the elite splitting apart at the seams? Or it this just a diversion? Is it real or is it pokazukha?
Check this out! On the same day, both Putin and Medvedev both indicated that they will seek the presidency in 2012. Is the tandem on the brink of collapse? Is it real or is it pokazukha?

In a recent article in "Newsweek," Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova make a very strong case that for all Medvedev's talk of reform and modernization, in the end it's all just pokazukha.

Here's the money quote, in which Matthews and Nemtsova cite Russian political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya (one of Moscow's leading experts on the Kremlin elite):

Far from being challenges to Putin, Medvedev's initiatives, according to Kryshtanovskaya, are all part of a clearly defined plan, called Russia 2020, that was cooked up by the Putin team as long ago as 2005. Phase one, carried out by Putin himself, was to make his hold on power unassailable by bringing all media and political parties under Kremlin control. Phase two, now underway, is to impose a highly controlled version of liberalization from above that will include more freedom of expression, a friendlier face toward the West, and inviting former liberal critics to act as Kremlin advisers.

This highly limited and tightly controlled flirtation with liberalization has been expedited and intensified, the authors argue, because the economic downturn has "forced the government to come up with a new liberal paradigm to dampen flickers of social discontent," with hopes that "allowing a degree of free speech and creating the appearance of responsive government will keep voters happy."

It is also necessary because the ruling elite needs better relations with the West in order to protect the estimated $200 billion to $300 billion that has been skimmed from the Russian economy over the past decade. Here are Matthews and Nemtsova, citing Yelena Panfilova of Transparency International Russia:

To keep these ill-gotten assets safe, Russia's kleptocrats need to ensure that future generations of leaders never try to bring them to justice and that foreigners don't pry too deeply. 'All the Kremlin's money is abroad, and [the siloviki] realize they should make friends with the Americans in order to provide themselves and their money some security,' says Panfilova. The best way to avoid scrutiny is to seem to lead, or at least endorse, the cause of reform—or so the thinking goes.

So I guess we can call what has been going on a "pokazukha liberalization."

It's a bit ironic that Putin and his team, who clearly favor a Yury Andropov-style authoritarian modernization, are now being forced -- albeit temporarily and reluctantly -- to pursue policies more reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. And we all remember how that exercise in controlled liberalization turned out.

Truth told, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what is going on here and haven't reached any definitive conclusions. In the past, I have written that Putin and his inner circle were seeking to establish "an enduring political system -- a centralized, authoritarian, vertically integrated and unitary executive that can manage a thorough and comprehensive modernization of Russia." Essentially Andropov's vision of modernization.

I still believe that was the plan. The recent pokazukha liberalization (if you can even call it that) was probably an adjustment brought on by the economic crisis. But I still believe that for the key members of Putin's inner circle -- and certainly for key siloviki like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin -- the goals of the original plan remain intact.

In a recent interview with "Svobodnaya pressa," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin makes a point that goes to the very heart of why this gang is not going to let its power be whittled away without a fight:

Putin has built a system of government in which a person standing at its top is above the law, parliament, and courts. Above everything, because everything is subordinated to him. Consequently, if you lose this place, a different person comes who is above the law and parliament. The one who has left the place at the pinnacle of the vertical system becomes absolutely defenseless and protected only by good will of the new leader. If this good will runs out, the former leader becomes vulnerable. What is even more dangerous, people from his team also become vulnerable: naked, weak, ones you can do whatever you want with.

This is an option typical of South Korea, where powerful presidents, after they served their term in office, were brought to trial on corruption charges and convicted. This option absolutely does not suit the Putin team. This means that by definition, they cannot leave the vertical system. In the political jargon, it is called the absence of an exit strategy. Vertical models of government in principle provide no exit strategy. In this system, you cannot just go and engage in private affairs, as Bill Clinton did. It is either you command or you are commanded. Therefore, it is not so important whether Putin will run in elections or sends someone else to run for him. It is important that power should remain in the hands of this group.

This is all very true and almost certainly reflects the Kremlin elite's thinking. But the problem is what starts out as pokazukha doesn't always remain that way. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own. Discontent in society is very real. (Kaliningrad anyone?) The middle and lower rungs of the elite are getting very restless. (see Igor Yurgens and his allies) Can those at the higher level be too far behind?

And although oil prices have recovered much of their losses, living standards are not going to improve under the current system as fast as many Russians were led to believe during the heady days of Putin's second term.

Despite the Kremlin's best-laid plans, this all remains very unpredictable and highly unstable.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: liberalization,modernization,pokazuka,Vladimir Putin,medvedev

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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
March 08, 2010 20:43
Good analysis, but I'm left wondering where the line is between pokazyka and reality. Consider our 'cradle of democracy'-Washington, DC. On the surface, sure looks like democracy. Dig a bit deeper, however, and see how the two parties are playing at politics, while working with their pals on Wall Street, to empty the bank accounts of most hard-working Americans. And with the role big money now plays in elections, does it even matter what the average American thinks? He/she will be fed a message to ensure that he never questions the status quo. You're right: Putin and crew are corrupt as sin, but increasingly it feels like the pot is calling the kettle black.

by: Sean from: Moscow, Russia
March 09, 2010 06:39
<i>It's a bit ironic that Putin and his team, who clearly favor a Yury Andropov-style authoritarian modernization, are now being forced -- albeit temporarily and reluctantly -- to pursue policies more reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika.</i>

This pick-your-GenSek (Stalin, Brezhnev, and now Andropov) vs. Gorbachev metaphor is so tired if only because it is so inaccurate. This liberalization/modernization is more reminiscent of 1905-1914 Tsarist Russia. Putin et al. are conservative Russian liberals--not the liberals you want--but those in the Russian tradition. When you say Andropov, I think of Stolypin and Witte. If you really want to see what conservative liberals are reading, come to a intelligenty bookstore in Moscow and see all the new history books evaluating the post-1905 period. No one is seriously thinking about the 1970s and 1980s.

The people who occupy the Kremlin are more neo-Tsarist than neo-Soviet, but "Soviet" plays a much better political foil in the imagination of Western liberals.

by: God from: Heaven
March 09, 2010 06:39
To add to this article that in Russia there is probably fear in the Kremlin that any social unrest could not only end the power of the siloviki, but bring an end to Russia as a nation. Historically, Russia has always been an empire based on some form of occupation and expansion. Russia expanded eastward beyond the Urals first then moved into the Baltics, Finland, Caucasus, etc. Didn't Kaliningrad used to be called Konigsburg? Didn't Vladivostok used to be part of China (up until the Opium Wars). Even today the Chinese refer to Vladivostok by a different name. This all harks back to the old Russian idea that they are the decendants of Byzantium and the inheritors of the Christian World. The so-called "Third Rome" (Reminds one of "Third Reich"). The last thing the power verticle wants to hear about, is separatist movements in Siberia, Karelia, Caucasus, Kaliningrad, Tatarstan, etc. all going on at the same time. A splintering of an empire with no possible way to stop it. So they will use whatever methods necessary to clamp down on any social unrest. These methods will not succeed forever. The Czar were unable to keep a lid on social unrest and so it will be for the current power verticle. It's as if Putin and Co. are dumping wood on a campfire before an approaching thunderstorm, hoping that a hotter fire won't be washed away by the pouring rain.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
March 09, 2010 09:18

Thanks for the major belly laugh regarding Russians thinking out their new dictatorship by studying "the post-1905 period." What a hoot! Do you have more you could share? Winter doldrums, you know. Or were you simply drunk when you wrote that?

Your haughty, condescending arrogance bespeaks someone of great achievements or a totally pathetic loser. Perhaps you could clarify which one you are?

The people who occupy the Kremlin are more neo-Soviet than neo-Tsarist, but "Tsarist" plays a much better political foil in the imagination of bitter Marxist extremists.

Maybe you haven't noticed, but (a) the ruler of Russia is a proud KGB spy and (b) the music of the national anthem of Russia is same as that of the USSR and (c) the government of Russia is actively rehabilitating Stalin and the Cold War and shooting journalists and sending rival candidates to Siberia.

Now granted, there was some continuity between the institution of the Tsar and the institution of the Politburo, continuity that many Marxist rabble would like to sweep under the carpet. And granted, Putin makes more use of the church than did the Politburo. But that's what NEO-Soviet means, you see. NEW and improved, or so they think.

PS: Your evidence in support of your point is really devastating. Did it take you many years to acquire research skills like those?

by: La Russophobe from: USA
March 09, 2010 09:21
For those interested in reading about the rehabilitation of Stalin in neo-Soviet Russia, from the pages of the Kremlin's own propaganda network no less:

by: Vakhtang
March 09, 2010 12:05
показуха ж. разг. неодобр.
это сплошная показуха — it's all put on; just for show

by: James from: Washington DC
March 09, 2010 13:12
I think that we can often make the mistake of projecting an assumption of overly complex strategic planning in the formation of Russia's current political system, and the gestures toward liberalization being made.

I don't believe that Putin and his inner circle hold "values" of authoritarianism, but rather found it to be the most convenient system of control, patronage, and rent-seeking. If social circumstances provide the opportunity for the expansion of presidential powers, many if not most leaders are bound to take the opportunity (it's also an American tradition from FDR to Bush).

If pursuing a law-abiding, open democratic model were as secure and profitable to Kremlin elites, that's likely the political model we would see. The liberalization effort is similarly an effort to preserve legitimacy of what they have already stolen.

by: Knockout Puncher
March 09, 2010 14:11
Re: Below Comments

Another round of stupidity from a usual source.

Actually, elements within United Russia have shown opposition to portraying Stalin in a more positive light.

Contrary to the often stated mantra, much of contemporary Russia's fareast was never part of China. Russia and China recently signed an agreement ending any formal disagreement over borders. Historically speaking, one can debate whether modern China is such a great successor to the Mongol Empire.

The Russian expansionism point is typical of the hypocritical bunk out there. Imagine if there was land between Hawaii and Califiornia. Meantime, land currently outside Russia seeks to become a part of it, whereas no land in Russia presently seeks to leave that country.

It's great that post-Soviet Russia is taking a more positive view of its pre-Soviet past. It's a good idea to merge the positive attributes of the past in a progressive contemporary mode.


by: God from: Heaven
March 10, 2010 03:47
Wow, my comment seemed to have frayed some Russophile nerves on this site.
Knockout Puncher:
Russia and other European powers were known in the 19th century to slice off parts of China for themselves. The British had Hong Kong, Portugal had Macau, Russia had Port Arthur, etc. China was forced to hand over Vladivostok to Czarist Russia in the 19th century. Any signed agreements recently have no effect on historical fact. Also, Hitler proved that signed agreements are just pieces of paper, that can be shredded easily. You seemed to confuse China with Mongolia. China is no successor to the Mongolian empire any more Russia is a successor to the Ottoman empire. There are regions seeking to leave Russia. In fact, one did before being re-invaded, its called.....CHECHNYA. Yes, Russians still have 19th century mindset. The de-facto annexation of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia is proof of that. There are Russian nationalists today that actually believe Alaska should be part of "the Fatherland", but the Americans would violently defend one of their 50 States with nuclear force.

by: Knockout Puncher
March 10, 2010 16:46
For whatever reason my last set of comments got knocked downstairs instead of in the order it should be in - in accordance with how some of the other comments typically get posted.

I didn't confuse the Mongol Empire with China. Rather, I suggested how someone else seemingly did at this thread.

Chechnya had a referendum whose result showed support for staying within Russia. The appeal of Chechen separatism has noticeably decreased, due to what happened in two different instances during the last decade, when that republic twice had considerable autonomy. Specifically, mayhem from within Chechnya. What other parts of Russia are seeking to separate from it?

South Ossetia and Abkhazia haven't been "annexed," contrary to the misguided claim to the contrary. Put it this way, has Kosovo been annexed to NATO?

The number of Russians believing that Alaska should be given back to Russia is very small.
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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