Thursday, April 24, 2014


The Power Vertical

Brezhnev's Children

Late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (center) with the president of the presidium of the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet Nikolai Podgorny and politburo member Andrei Kosygin during October Revolution anniversary celebrations in 1973.
Late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (center) with the president of the presidium of the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet Nikolai Podgorny and politburo member Andrei Kosygin during October Revolution anniversary celebrations in 1973.
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In many ways, the current battle for Russia's future began 30 years ago this week.
 
On November 10, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died, sparking a generational change in the Soviet leadership and setting in motion an ongoing cycle of reform and reaction in Russia that remains incomplete and inconclusive to this day.
 
The players' names have changed as has the lexicon, but the fundamental issue remains essentially the same: how to carry out essential reforms when said reforms threaten the existing elite's continued dominance.
 
Brezhnev's death heralded the exit from the scene of the so-called "Class of 1937" -- the generation of Soviet leaders that quickly climbed the Communist Party's ranks following the Stalinist purges and ruled the country for decades thereafter.
 
By the end of Brezhnev's rule, the Soviet economy, perilously dependent on commodities exports, was stagnating and contracting as oil prices fell. The political system was ossified, corruption rampant, and public cynicism endemic. The consensus within key quarters of the rising generation of the elite was that reform was essential.
 
The two main constituencies pushing for change -- the KGB and technocratic "regime liberals" -- made for an unlikely alliance. But this odd coalition teamed up to pick two Soviet leaders: Yury Andropov (the KGB's candidate) and Mikhail Gorbachev (the technocrats' choice).
 
And it should come as no surprise that the two key meta-clans in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin are the "siloviki" and the technocrats. These bureaucratic descendants of the very same alliance that anointed Andropov and Gorbachev in the 1980s also put Putin in the Kremlin at the turn of the millennium.
 
In last week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast, Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," succinctly drew the parallel:
 
Andropov was able to bring together a coalition of people who realized that some kind of change was necessary. It was a very broad-based coalition that ranged -- in Soviet Communist Party terms -- from liberals all the way to hard-liners whose idea of reform was turning the screws and getting the workers to work harder. They all agreed on one basic notion, that the status quo was not sustainable. That was the thing that held together the Andropov coalition -- and it was the Andropov coalition that would lead to Gorbachev's rise. As soon as he [Gorbachev] tried to operationalize it, he had trouble. How can you hold that disparate coalition  together? Putin saw some of these pressures being played out...and it's already failed. The creative capacities have been used up.
 
Andropovism and Gorbachevism represent two paths for a stagnating authoritarian system to reform itself -- and both eventually lead to a dead end.
 
The Andropov model, which the sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya has called "authoritarian modernization," is similar to the path China has followed until now -- tightly managed economic reform that introduces market mechanisms, albeit without political reform.
 
Due to Andropov's death in 1984, it never got off the ground in the Soviet Union. But it was the model for Putin's rule, which exposed its limitations. In the short term it leads to growth and prosperity. But in the long run, said growth and prosperity lead to the creation of a middle class that eventually clamors for political rights. Denying these rights saps the system's "creative capacity" and leads to instability.
 
And if pushed to its logical conclusion, the Gorbachev model, which envisions more comprehensive economic and political reform, eventually unleashes forces that lead to a level of pluralism that brings down the authoritarian system.
 
Both models also inevitably split the coalition of siloviki and technocratic liberals that spawned it.
 
In the case of the Andropov model, the technocrats rebel and team up with the emerging middle class in pushing for greater pluralism, as exiled members of Putin's team, like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, are doing now.
 
And as the full implications of the Gorbachev model play out, the siloviki ultimately rebel -- as they did in August 1991.
 
If Putin followed Andropovism throughout his first stint in the Kremlin from 2000-04, Dmitry Medvedev's presidency had the feel of a Gorbachev redux.
 
And while September 2011, when Putin announced his return to the Kremlin, wasn't quite the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, the impulse was the same: the siloviki feared losing power and made their move to stop any more change. They famously failed in August 1991, but were more successful last autumn.
 
So three decades after Brezhnev's death, we've come full circle. The system remains deadlocked with nothing in sight to break the logjam.
 
-- Brian Whitmore
 
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on November 9 when I will discuss these issues with my co-host, Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Tags: Vladimir Putin, Leonid Brezhnev, Dmitry Medvedev, Yury Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev

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Comments
     
by: Timo from: Prague
November 09, 2012 01:27
Very interesting and illustrative comparison. I have a couple of remarks, though. 1) The Chinese model was based on a lot of economic freedom at the grass roots. Andropov was not planning anything like that. He was not the one to allow speculators act freely. 2) There is hardly any resemblance between Gorbachev and Medvedev. I don't think Medvedev even dreamed about really changing the political system. He was only pretending to be a liberal reformer at best.
In Response

by: Fred Eidlin from: Minsk, Belarus
November 11, 2012 07:35
Russia is not the Soviet union. The regime in Russia has little in common with the Soviet regime. To imply that the process of reforming Russia represents a continuation of attempts to reform the Soviet regime, as Whitmore does, distorts reality beyond recognition.

Failures of reform under the Soviet regime were mostly due to features of that regime which have disappeared: (1) the commando-administrative economic system, (2) the ideological monopoly of truth, including control of all information in public space; (3) the monopoly of power of the Communist Party. All attempts at reform under the Soviet system ran aground when they threatened these pillars of the regime, as all of them inevitably did. All of these regime pillars are gone for good.

Commando-administrative control is gone. Post-Soviet Russia has a market economy that is integrated into the world economy. The monopoly of power of the Communist Party no longer exists. And. while Communist ideology was an all-pervasive feature of the Soviet regime, post-Soviet Russia lacks any ideology at all.

Of course, much remains unchanged when regimes change. The people, their culture, traditions, and institutions change only to a limited extent. A substantial part of officialdom stays in place, as do many laws and much of the culture of government and administration. Although foreign relations may change substantially, many state interests remain unchanged. Furthermore, some habits of thinking undeniably carry over. All this was true of Iraq after Saddam and France after the 1789 Revolution, for example. But who would seriously draw parallels between approaches to reform of the old and new regimes in these cases?

To some extent Whitmore's parallels do hold. Andropovism and Gorbachevism, do represent alternative strategies. However, his statement that "three decades after Brezhnev's death, we've come full circle. The system remains deadlocked with nothing in sight to break the logjam" is nonsense. Whitmore fails to recognize the obvious. Andropov and Gorbachev failed because they were both attempting to reform an unreformable regime. The superficially similar strategies of Putin and Medvedev may also fail but, if they do, it will be due to entirely different reasons.

The most likely outcome of crystallization of such alternative approaches to governance and reform in Russia is precisely the opposite of what Whitmore suggests. There are Andropov-like approaches and Gorbachev-like approaches in all democratic countries, that is, hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hardliners and moderates. In a situation of competitive politics, such different approaches are incorporated into political programs that are debated and result in victories and defeats at the ballot box.

Perhaps, rather than deadlock, we will see the emergence of competitive politics in Russia.
In Response

by: rkka from: USA
November 18, 2012 03:01
"To imply that the process of reforming Russia represents a continuation of attempts to reform the Soviet regime, as Whitmore does, distorts reality beyond recognition. "

"The most likely outcome of crystallization of such alternative approaches to governance and reform in Russia is precisely the opposite of what Whitmore suggests."

Cut poor Whitmore some slack. If he didn't indulge Washington's wish-fulfillment fantasy by prophesying another Russian collapse, he's be out of a job in nothing flat.

"There are Andropov-like approaches and Gorbachev-like approaches in all democratic countries, that is, hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hardliners and moderates. In a situation of competitive politics, such different approaches are incorporated into political programs that are debated and result in victories and defeats at the ballot box. "

Oh, boy, now you've done it. You've implied that Russia isn't an authoritarian dictatorship where all dissent is violently crushed. Seriously, there's only so much truth and reality that this blog can take!!

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
November 12, 2012 04:57
200 years ago, a well-known public official and historian Karamzin, arrived on a visit to France.
When immigrants asked him, "What's going on in Russia?" He replied, "Just like always, life is going "well", people steal."He meant, of course, first of all, the theft from the treasury,
Perhaps that under Stalin important officials were afraid to steal knowing what's mean punitive sword of repression.
Recent corruption scandals show that nothing has changed in Russia.
In Russia all people have a tendency to steal, regardless of the historical period
This is the mentality of the Russian people.
In fact, many things in Russia are not changed,,, here the main idea of ​​the article's author is correct.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
November 13, 2012 15:55
Brezhnevs children-all of them Shariks-Eugenio from Vienna,Jack fom the SU and kaka vahtang dudu from moss cow!!!
In Response

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
November 15, 2012 08:37
We must also remember that during the Brezhnev era, the animals are not starved in zoos.
All camels could to get their daily ration and in case of illness antibiotics or neuroleptics.
Unfortunately today camels wandering around the world, their disease at advanced stage..
Only with the help of electric shock one can put to the place a very sick brains of camel

About This Blog

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

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