A funny thing happened when Vladimir Putin's election campaign applied for permission from Moscow authorities to hold a mass rally on the capital's main downtown thoroughfare. The mayor's office balked.
With a planned attendance of 200,000, City Hall officials said the planned February 23 demonstration is too large and the route of the march -- from Tverskaya Street to Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin -- is too disruptive.
"We will try to convince the organizers to abandon the rally, as it will paralyze traffic," Deputy Mayor Aleksandr Gorbenko said in remarks reported by Gazeta.ru
. "We propose to reduce the number of participants to 100,000 people, in which case a meeting can be held on Poklonnaya Hill or in the Luzhniki Stadium."
Moscow authorities rejected a similar route for the opposition demonstration on February 4, but that was hardly surprising. But since when has Moscow City Hall been in the habit of refusing to give Putin's team anything they want?
The two sides will no doubt resolve the issue in the coming days and the pro-Putin rally will go ahead in some form or another. But the fact that it was even an issue is a sign of the times. And in the contest of similar recent breakdowns in Russia's administrative hierarchy, it is an ominous sign for Team Putin.
Managed democracies like Putin's Russia need several things to operate effectively. They need to be able to convincingly rig elections -- and not get caught doing so. They need to be able to orchestrate believable popular demonstrations of support for the regime, like mass street rallies -- without it being demonstrably obvious that people were being paid to attend. And they need local officials to be obedient and servile.
Such administrative resources make up the glue that holds authoritarian structures like Putin's power vertical together. And there have been plenty of signs recently that this glue is weakening.
As I blogged last week
, election commission officials like Irina Kolpakova in Samara and Tatyana Ivanova in St. Petersburg have blown the whistle on how they were pressured to inflate the ruling United Russia party's vote totals in the December 4 parliamentary elections.
Days after a pro-regime rally in Moscow that the authorities say drew nearly 140,000 people, many attendees went public with stories
about how they were promised money to attend -- and then were not paid.
Like Moscow City Hall's rebuke of the Putin campaign, these things would have been practically unthinkable just a few years ago.
There are other signs out there that the vertical is weakening. Andrei Kostin, the head of the Kremlin-connected bank VTB has suggested, for example, that in the likely event that Putin wins the March 4 presidential election, he should only serve one term
"For an open society in the 21st century, [12 years] is a huge amount of time. No leaders of democratic countries have been in power for so long," Kostin wrote in the daily "Kommersant
" on February 13.
The reason for this administrative breakdown is fairly obvious -- it stems from the political uncertainty that the Russian elite has suddenly found itself in. As New York University professor and Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows
," told me recently
, "everyone is a political entrepreneur in their own right in the current situation because nobody knows what is going to happen."
Mark made a similar point in a recent blog post
explaining why Putin may not be able to count on the security services to crack down on dissent should it come to that:
In any case, my sense is that many of the people who would have to do the leg breaking, the water cannoning, the blackmail, and the intimidation are now thinking the unthinkable, of a post-Putin endgame which might include lustration sessions, human rights tribunals, and audits.
Putin has been working hard to regain his mojo in recent weeks. He has made some moves to shore up the power vertical and regain control of Russia's media narrative.
Whether he is successful or whether the vertical continues to weaken will be one of the key variables determining Russia's future direction.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED TO CLEAN UP A TRANSLATION. THANKS TO 'JOHN FROM MOSCOW' IN COMMENTS SECTION.