Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Power Vertical

Administrative (Resource) Breakdown

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin covers his face during a conference of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Moscow on February 9.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin covers his face during a conference of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Moscow on February 9.
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 "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. 
Gazprom-Media's moves to dissolve the radio station Ekho Moskvy's board of directors this week certainly falls into this category (I will have more to say on this subject in a later post) as do reports that he intends to dissolve, rebuild, and rebrand the deeply unpopular United Russia party after the elections.
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

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: John from: Moscow, Russia
February 15, 2012 16:38
"We will try to convince the organizers to abandon the rally, as it paralyzes the movement" was "Будем пытаться убедить организаторов отказаться от митинга, так как это парализует движение" in the original, which can also be translated "We will try to convince the organizers to abandon the rally, as it will paralyze traffic," which makes a little more sense than "the movement" (which movement?), but is also kind of funny. It's almost a non-reason, since the authorities stop traffic all the time, but one that will resonate with the public, who hate the constant traffic jams.
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
February 16, 2012 00:03
Nice catch John. Thanks. Sloppy translating on my part. Will fix in update. b

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In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

18:16 December 09, 2014


...and the Russian Orthodox Church is not happy about it.

17:03 December 09, 2014


10:00 December 09, 2014


What to make of French President Francois Hollande's meeting with Vladimir Putin this weekend? The Moscow Times takes a look in a story today:

The weekend meeting between the French and Russian presidents has given France a chance to become "the new Germany" for Russia, which lost its last Western ally after a falling-out with official Berlin, analysts say.

French mediation "is aimed at preventing Russia-EU relations from going to the dogs," said Tatiana Kastueva-Jean of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.

Germany has traditionally been Russia's staunchest defender in Europe. But with Berlin taking a harder line in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, and particularly the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Paris os trying to fill the void:

Though France has backed EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, it has taken a notably moderate stance toward Moscow.

Hollande was one of the few Western leaders who did not give Putin a hard time at a G20 meeting in Australia's Brisbane last month.

Nor have French authorities pressured French businesses to cut connections to Russia like Germany did, said Sergei Fyodorov of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Hollande's "ostpolitik" is reminiscent of that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy: 

There is a recent precedent for Hollande's attempts to play peacemaker with Russia: In 2008, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the end to the "five-day war" between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Right. And we all know how well that turned out. Just ask the Georgians.

Read the whole piece here.

09:47 December 09, 2014


Anna Netrebko's decision to donate 1 million rubles to a theater in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, and her posing with a Novorossia rebel flag, has sparked a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #BoycottAnnaNetrebko.

Here are some choice tweets:

09:31 December 09, 2014


Simon Shuster has a new piece up at Time suggesting he did, based on a draft copy of the speech prepared by the Kremlin leader's speechwriters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently cut out a blistering critique of Ukrainian authorities in a speech to human-rights advocates last week, as he seeks to carve out a peace deal with his country’s neighbor. 

In a draft prepared by Putin’s speechwriters and obtained by TIME, the President was set to accuse Ukrainian authorities of the “mass destruction of their own citizens” during their ongoing conflict with Moscow-backed separatist rebels. But at the last moment, Putin appears to have dropped that line.

Read the whole piece here.


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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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