Thursday, July 31, 2014


The Power Vertical

Putin's China Syndrome

Unlike China's leaders, Vladimir Putin has opted to hang on to power indefinitely.
Unlike China's leaders, Vladimir Putin has opted to hang on to power indefinitely.
The Moscow punditocracy has had China on its mind lately. In fact, one leading commentator even confessed to suffering from "China envy."
 
When the Chinese Communist Party elected the country's new top leaders earlier this month, with Hu Jintao relinquishing power to Xi Jinping, many in Russia's chattering classes noted how favorably the system stacks up to their own.
 
"The Chinese have managed to do something the Russians can never pull off: to stop relying on great and irreplaceable individuals, and instead put in place a system of regular change of [its] top leaders," Mikhail Rostovsky wrote in "Moskovsky komsomolets."

Since 1992 -- when Deng Xiaoping turned power over to Jiang Zemin -- the rule has been two five-year terms and out.
 
The contrast with Russia, where the political system revolves around the indispensible Vladimir Putin, was noted everywhere from the opposition tabloid "Novaya gazeta" to the business-oriented "RBK Daily," to the official government broadsheet "Rossiiskaya gazeta" -- which, quite interestingly, called the Chinese model "an instructive model for other countries."
 
In the daily "Kommersant," Aleksandr Gabuyev wrote that the Chinese leader is "only the first among equals in a sort of 'board of directors' for the PRC, which avoids a situation in which the country is ruled for too long by a sickly and aging leader who has stayed too long atop the power vertical."

Putin, of course, had the chance to implement something akin to the Chinese model last year. All he had to do was bless Dmitry Medvedev's bid for a second term as president, as the technocratic wing of the elite was urging him to do, and maintain his decisive influence behind the scenes -- as Deng Xiaoping did in his day.
 
But that, of course, did not happen. And by opting to return to the presidency for six -- and possibly 12 -- more years, Putin is being compared not to Deng but to Leonid Brezhnev.
 
"Both looked young and attractive at the beginning of their rule and both looked sickly and comical toward the end. Both let the right historical moment for their departure slip by, ran out of steam, and survived in politics," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in Slon.ru.

The Brezhnev comparisons, which began in earnest about a year ago and enjoyed a revival with recent rumors about the state of Putin's health, have become a bit overdone and old hat by now.
 
But one aspect is very relevant to Russia's future. It wasn't only Brezhnev who looked old and sickly by the end of his rule but the entire Soviet elite. This cadre, known as the Class of 1937, rose to power in the wake of Stalin's purges -- and remained there until their deaths.
 
And many observers are now wondering whether the same will happen with the entire Putin team. This would keep the rising generation, which came of political age after the fall of the Soviet Union, eternally frustrated and on the outside.
 
"Putin has demonstrated a willingness to keep management of the state in the hands of his trusted people, who will soon be of retirement age, until the end of the decade," analyst Viktor Averkov wrote in "RBK Daily." "In order to avoid a generational conflict, he needs to study the mechanisms of succession and the transfer of power."

There is little evidence that he is doing so. In fact, as columnist Sergei Shelin illustrated in a recent piece in Gazeta.ru, Putin's much vaunted mini-purge of the elite after a series of corruption scandals amounted to little more than shuffling around some familiar faces into new posts.

"The purges at the Defense and Regional Development ministries, as well as in other departments and regional structures, seemed to promise the desired posts to those who have grown tired waiting for them," Shelin wrote. "But the paradox of Putin's personnel purge is that the reshuffles of the establishment are in full swing without any hint of upward mobility."
 
Shelin adds that "the Kremlin is shuffling one and the same pack of cards" with "heavyweights" and their "entire close-knit clans moving from place to place."
 
There was a time when many observers, myself included, thought Putin's long-term goal was to build an enduring and stable (albeit authoritarian) system that would endure beyond his time in office.
 
What is becoming abundantly clear is that no such strategic goal exists. There are only tactical maneuvers aimed at survival -- which, paradoxically, makes for the most unstable system of all.
 
-- Brian Whitmore
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
November 27, 2012 21:19
Well well well.we all thought Eugenio and Jack were top of the pops for writing crap posts,but now mr.Whitmore has dumped them both.`Vladimir Vladimirovitch is a `great and irreplaceable individual` and not the usual run-of-the mill kgb Sharik homunculus??? Ha,bloody ha-we dont have to wait for another 988 years-this is the joke of the last Millenium.Molodets,Brian-did you inspire Monthy Python`s Life of Brian???

by: Mark from: Victoria
November 28, 2012 18:17
Could this, finally, be the tipping point? Is Putin on his way out? Is he leaving long fingernail grooves on the floor of his office as bureaucrats swooning with China-love drag him out, while black-clad Kremlin PR flacks flutter about like crows as they cook up an implausible explanation for his abrupt departure - perhaps his health, comrade?

Ha, ha; no, come on, I was just kidding. No, really, I was just trying to lighten the mood - seriously, look, Brian has characterized this supposed abdication of Russia's present government in favour of a smart new Chinese model - which will presumably not include Putin - in his Twitter feed as "another indication of Putin fatigue".

Is there really a cresting wave of anything that could be described as "Putin fatigue"? Really? Oh, I don't mean in the west and among the miniscule liberal opposition in Russia, because they've been nursing Putin-fatigue since...mmm, about 2001. I mean among the Russian electorate, which actually put him into office and may well do so again. No, I would have to say not; his popularity figures have remained relatively stable and they are often framed as figures any western leader would sell his mother into bondage for, although of course they indicate failure in Putin's bloody-fanged dictatorship. No cause for celebration there.

Well, wait; maybe the economy is crashing to the ground! No, sorry; manufacturing orders have risen for 13 straight months according to HSBC analysts, new hires are up for 3 straight months and the banking sector has shown strong growth in the first half of 2012, with retail leading the way. Things look headed in the opposite direction from collapse, actually.

Well, then, let's look at the Chinese government's relationship with Russia, and see if we can get the real story.

http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-09/06/c_131832674.htm

Oh, look. It's Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko, meeting with the Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress. On the occasion of the sixth meeting of the China-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, not to put too fine a point on it. China-Russia government cooperation is not only not new at all, but is part of a formalized process. Although there is nothing to suggest Russia is about to implement a wholesale adoption of the Chinese government model, I daresay areas of innovation in each country are noted by the other and implemented so as to best serve each country.

I imagine you noted, even without looking at the referenced article, that Russia's delegate to the China-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee is a woman - not too many Russian men are named Valentina. But, just for fun, take a look at the photo on page 2 of that article. How many women do you see?

If you don't feel like looking, I'll save you the trouble. Two, one of which is Matvienko. I can tell you one group that is not anxious to see Russia adopt the progressive Chinese government model - Russian women. Women are sorely under-represented in the Chinese government, although they do quite well in business.

http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2012/03/china-still-a-mans-world/

By way of contrast, in Russia women make up more than 50% of federal administrative posts, range from 33% to 64% in all branches of power at the state level and are 11% of the General assembly.

http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/wom1812.doc.htm

I note that all the excited comments in the body of this post, which support the view of China's government as an instructive model for other countries, came from men.


by: Mark from: Victoria
November 28, 2012 18:27
Sorry; I went over the character limit and had to do a second comment to get my conclusion in.

Look; almost every government has its success stories, and there are doubtless valuable lessons to be learnt from China's government. But Russia is no more likely to adopt a Chinese government model owing to pressure from western governments or think-tanks than it is to adopt American-style government owing to pressure from western governments or think-tanks. Why not? Because both have the same short-term goal: get rid of Putin, pick someone else. And as long as the Russian economy continues to flourish under Putin after nearly sliding over the edge under the western-supported and western-encouraged Yeltsin, that is simply unlikely to happen. Despite the bi-weekly tipping point and regular injections of wistfully-hopeful doom for Putin, none of that is really happening.

On this blog, it's always the same time of day - sunset for Putin. The view is regularly advanced that he should have burnt out like a torch that consumes itself, at the height of his glory, like Jimi Hendrix, instead of a fat, peanut-butter-smeared travesty of his former self, like Elvis, who stayed far past his pinnacle. And that's a nice story.

Just as long as you don't confuse it with reality.
In Response

by: Anonymous
November 28, 2012 23:42
I actually don't disagree that Putin is unlikely to leave power till his mortal abode disintegrates into dust. That is indeed the most likely path for the future. What's more, I even think Brian above also thinks that.

I believe the main point you're missing is that it would be eventually better for Russia if Putin left, and someone more politically progressive took over. If, indeed, Russia could move towards becoming a democracy.

That is what fuels the, let's call it wishful thinking, that you detect in the blog: the idea that things would be better for Russia if Putin left, but that this is unlikely to happen. He'll probably stick around, Brezhnev style, for as long as he can. But if he did... what a big country like Russia could then become, with its resources and human capital, is mind-boggling.

Judging by the size of your comment, and the general tone, you disagree with this main point: that Putin is not good for Russia in the long run. Do you really think Russia is better off as an autocracy in the old South American style than it would be as a real democracy? Do you think Putin's way is really the way to go for this country whose history is so full of people who were convinced their personal views were the only solution to today's problems?
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
November 29, 2012 12:12
Politically progressive-- like Boris Yeltsin? How did that work out (not for the West mind you [for which Russia in the 1990s was a perfect result]) but Russia? There you have your answer as to what Western-style liberalism (aka progressivism) under Western management in Russia looks like-- that picture is far less pretty than the generally successful , albeit flawed, Putin era. Mark from Victoria masks some excellent points on that subject. Anonymous might have something of a point if there was a "patriotic liberal" option available in Russia today politically, but it is one of the paradoxes of Russian history that there never is such an option for governance there.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
November 29, 2012 21:23
A lot of people seem to be under the impression that, because Vladimir Putin remains leader of Russia, Russia is not a democracy. I beg to differ. While he unquestionably desires the office, and likely will serve another term following the present one if he is elected, it is not up to him whether he stays or goes. It is up to the electorate, which is - by definition - democratic in that all eligible citizens share an equal right to self-determination. Is it your contention that, had Putin failed in the presidential vote, he would have mustered the guard and imposed his rule on Russia by force of arms? I highly doubt it. I imagine that had it shaken out like that he would likely have retired; at the very most he would have remained an influential member of his party and active in national politics. That possibility is not a serious consideration, as he was most decidedly elected by a majority of the people; a fact which was undisputed by democratic leaders, although many were clearly unhappy about it.

There's not enough space here to get into the prevalence of voter suppression in democratic countries, but suffice it to say that all incumbent governments use every trick at their command in order to remain in power. Moreover, many established references correctly point out that the "purity" of democracy is now blurred, as nearly all contemporary governments contain mixed elements of the oligarchic, monarchistic and democratic models. It hardly needs saying that all refer to themselves as democracies.

If the main point of the post was that Putin is not good for Russia in the long run, the author did a good job hiding it, although he clearly would like to see Putin removed by whatever means and a liberal reformer even more liberal than Medvedev installed in his place. I interpreted the post to mean that Russian bureaucrats are eyeing the Chinese model of government with a view to adopting it. I might as well say here that this is ridiculous, because China remains Communist while Russia would not go back to Communism even if the Communists were elected - they would have to run it as something of a democracy and it probably would not look much differently from what it does today, although the state would resume control over some things that have passed into the private sector. But there is much about the Chinese model that remains unatractive to Russia, while they have likely already adopted such elements as appealed to them; the two countries enjoy very close ties.

Nonetheless, yes; I do dispute it. Putin has been good for Russia thus far, continues to be good for Russia and will likely be removed by the electorate as soon as he convincingly is not. Never mind the red herring about whether I consider Russia to be better off as an old South-American autocracy, because it isn't.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
November 29, 2012 00:00
On the whole well put. Putin, however, tends only to ameliorate problems instead of truly solve them and Russia isn't in the same global weight class as China these days. That said, the contrast between Russia in the Putin era and the Western-guided Yeltsin era could not be greater. This was I think, in large part because Putin's goal-- often fairly effectively pursued-- was to revive Russia. The goal of the preceding liberal era was to dismantle the country (like a bankrupt business) and divide up its assets; failure of Russia was the goal and its peole were treated like a nuisance.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
November 29, 2012 05:52
Mr. Whitmore decided to play a cunning game...Turning to the Russian press, and to a discussions of Russian journalists Mr.Whitmore on the subject prefers to remain silent.
He does not want to say that progrеss in China is primarily connected with the policy of the Communist Party with brutal repression and mass executions...

just imagine:

Luzhniki Stadium
100,000 spectators- the Russian workers and peasants (all drunk as usual)...in the middle of the pitch-Serdyukov, Vasilieva, Skrynnik and Smetanina on their knees..Bastrykin behind with a Mauser..with words:"For the Motherland! For Putin!"shoots in the heads of embezzlers and perverts..I am sure that after this, the number of brothels in the ministries will be reduced immediately.
All such acts, it is the norm for China, that is why there is progress.
Unfortunately Putin takes out his anger on the defenseless women...Mass executions of officials,torture by fire and water of officials,will lead to an economic breakthrough of Russia...
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
November 29, 2012 12:44
Quite agree with the Vakhtang team of BS BW experts,however,we dont need mass executions-just one will do-that of the greatest georgian patriot who ran as far away from his motherland to the land of those he castigates daily-and that is his stepmother Russia.`Torture by fire and water says Vakhtangovitch`-too costly say I - just force them to drink a cuppa georgian wine - the results would be far more devastating-for just a fraction of the price.Then we may think of resettling all persons of Caucasian origin in Georgia,and if you want to punish them russians -well then you must resettle all St.Georgians there!!!

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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