Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Kremlin's Thermidor

President Vladimir Putin attending an awards ceremony for achievements in culture and science in the Kremlin on June 12
President Vladimir Putin attending an awards ceremony for achievements in culture and science in the Kremlin on June 12
It's been a week on steroids for the State Duma as the lower house sprinted through legislation establishing tighter regulation of the Internet, placing tough new restrictions on NGOs, and reinstating criminal penalties for libel.
All three bills appear designed to stifle a resurgent opposition and restore the unrestricted and uncontested dominance of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin after more than six months of noisy street protests and open dissent.
And lawmakers clearly wanted to get the controversial Kremlin-backed bills off their docket before the summer recess kicks in.
But while what Russians call "cucumber season" may be upon us, Kremlin watchers say this year the traditional July-August lull in the political season is but a brief pause before the political maelstrom that is expected to engulf the political class in the autumn.
At the root of the looming crisis, political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote this week in the daily "Vedomosti," is that while a clear majority of Russians accept Putin as the country's legitimate ruler, an equally clear majority -- as well as a sizeable chunk of the elite -- does not want him to rule in the heavy-handed and unaccountable way he did during his first stint in the Kremlin. But Putin seems determined to do so anyway.
"Putin is officially back in the Kremlin, but he has not received the mandate of his previous presidency's strength," Rogov wrote. "Meanwhile, Putin intends to rule as if he has received it. This is what is driving Russia's unfolding political crisis, which has not yet entered its acute phase."
In a thorough and thoughtful piece, Rogov catalogues the "signs and symptoms" of confrontation on the horizon.
At the top of his list is Putin's standing among the public. True, he remains relatively popular, Rogov argues, but he no longer has the reservoir of public support to be the omnipotent figure who lorded over Russia from 2000-08.
"Putin's approval-to-disapproval ratio is approximately 65:35 or slightly below," Rogov wrote. "This might be considered as an excellent result for any president of a democratic country. But it is not acceptable for 'the king.'... Actually, Putin has lost this."
Likewise, Rogov notes the precipitous decline in United Russia's standing. This is hardly news, but the figures are striking. The ruling party, whose dominance was not so long ago compared to that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is now polling less than 40 percent in 32 regions -- and is less than 35 percent in 16 of them. In Moscow, United Russia is languishing below 30 percent.
The gap between Putin's inner circle and Moscow itself -- both the city's residents and the local political elite -- is also widening. Rogov writes that while about half of 1 percent of the capital's population regularly attends opposition rallies, more than half of them support the protesters and two-thirds oppose recent legislation cracking down on unsanctioned rallies.
And while the series of repressive laws that have followed Putin's return have clearly been an attempt by the Kremlin to reassert control and bring the rebellious part of the elite and society into line, in the current environment, Rogov argues, they will likely have the opposite effect.
"Functionally, a 'reaction' is the logical stage of a political crisis caused by the ruling regime's gradual loss of legitimacy," he wrote. "Clear signs have emerged of the regime's weakening and have set the stage for a split in the elite. Supporting the regime no longer looks like a win-win proposition. This 'reaction' is the regime's response."
And this reaction, Rogov adds, will cost Putin support among the public and the elite. He notes that Putin's firm supporters (as opposed to his overall approval rating) now number between 15 and 20 percent of the population. Between 40 and 45 percent conditionally support the president. His hardcore opponents number about 15 percent, with an additional 15 to 20 percent "sharing the anti-Putin mood to some extent."
"The current hard-line policy may, in the short run, have the positive effect of disciplining the elite," Rogov wrote. "But at the same time it may lead to the reduction of the zone of conditional support for Putin among the public and expand the proportion of those who sympathize with demands for his resignation."
Rogov predicts that this trend in public opinion should become clear in the autumn and will have the effect of turning a decisive portion of the elite against Putin and the ruling circle.
I found Rogov's argument persuasive, particularly considering the political calendar.
Local elections are scheduled across Russia in October and, given United Russia's weak standing, they will most likely further expose the regime's unpopularity.
Moreover, sometime in the autumn, the authorities are also scheduled to tackle a series of reforms of Russia's creaky social welfare architecture that are bound to be unpopular.
And looming over everything, of course, is the ever-present threat of an economic crisis from either volatile energy prices or contagion from the eurozone -- or both.
-- Brian Whitmore
(NOTE: Tune in to the July 13 edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast" for a discussion of the issues raised in this post.)
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Eugenio from: Vienna
July 14, 2012 06:02
Video: Hundreds clash with riot police in Russia -

by: Jack from: US
July 14, 2012 20:35
Saudi Wahhabi activists are approved by US government.
Organ traffickers, drug traffickers, weapons traffickers from Kosovo Liberation Army are approved by US government.

Putin is not approved by US government.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
July 15, 2012 05:29
VIDEO: Extremism to grow in Russia as police confront protests -

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LIVE 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

Semyon Guzman, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, says Vladimir Putin hasn't gone crazy -- he's just evil.

"Many really consider that he suffers from definite psychological illnesses,” Guzman wrote in a September 30 article (a big h/t to thei ndispensable Paul Goble for flagging this).  

"This is only a convenient explanation in the existing situation. Unfortunately, it is not correct.”

Putin's character traits, "ike those of a murderer, thief or other good for nothing, are not psychiatric phenomena but rather objects of the subjects of moral philosophy.” Guzman wrote. He added that Putin was "absolutely responsible" for his actions.

Karen Dawisha, who appeared on the Power Vertical Podcast back in April, dscusses her new book "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia"

From RFE/RL's News Desk:


The head of the European Commission says an EU-Ukraine trade deal can only be changed by Brussels and Kyiv – not Moscow.

Jose Manuel Barroso made the remarks in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin released on October 1.

Ukraine's parliament ratified its agreement with the EU last month. 

However, the implementation of the trade part of the deal has been delayed until January 2016 to appease Russia, which says the pact will hurt its markets.

Moscow has called for more three-way negotiations to amend the deal and threatened to curtail Ukraine's access to Russian markets if Kyiv implements it.

In his letter, Barroso warned Putin not to impose new trade measures, saying it would threaten the agreement with Russia to delay the EU-Ukraine pact.

(With reporting by Reuters)

And for anybody interested, here's the full text of Barroso's letter:

"Mr. President,

Following your letter of 17 September, I would like to welcome the constructive engagement from all sides in the trilateral ministerial meeting on the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area on 12 September.

The conclusions reached at that meeting were endorsed by all participants and set out in a joint ministerial statement.

On the EU side, we have informed our Member States of the outcome of the trilateral process, and we have now obtained their approval for the necessary legislative steps.

I should emphasize that the proposal to delay the provisional application of the DCFTA is linked to continuation of the CIS-FTA preferential regime, as agreed in the joint ministerial statement. In this context, we have strong concerns about the recent adoption of a decree by the Russian government proposing new trade barriers between Russia and Ukraine. We consider that the application of this decree would contravene the agreed joint conclusions and the decision to delay the provisional application of the trade related part of the Association Agreement.

The joint ministerial statement also foresees further consultations on how to address concerns raised by Russia. We are ready to continue engaging on how to tackle the perceived negative impacts to the Russian economy resulting from the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.

I take however this opportunity to underline that the Association Agreement remains a bilateral agreement and that, in line with international law, any adaptations to it can only be made at the request of one of the parties and with the agreement of the other, according to the mechanisms foreseen in the text and the respective internal procedures of the parties.

I wish to recall that the joint conclusions reached at the Ministerial meeting state clearly that all these steps are part and parcel of a comprehensive peace process in Ukraine, respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as its right to decide on its destiny.

Consequently, while all parties should implement the conclusions as laid down in the joint ministerial statement in good faith, the statement does not and cannot limit in any way the sovereign prerogatives of Ukraine.

The European Commission remains fully committed to contribute to a peaceful solution. In this respect we hope that the recent positive steps embodied in the Minsk Protocol of 5 September and the ensuing memorandum from 19 September will be fully implemented, including the monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian state border and its verification by the OSCE, and the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and military equipment from the Ukrainian territory.

We also expect that rapid and decisive progress can be achieved in the trilateral gas talks towards a mutually acceptable interim solution for the upcoming winter period, on the basis of the compromise elements set out by the European Commission. It is key that the resumption of energy deliveries to the citizens of Ukraine is ensured and that the fulfilment of all contractual obligations with customers in the EU is secured.

Yours faithfully,

José Manuel BARROSO"


And just when you though it couldn't get any weirder, Valery Zorkin destroys your illusions.

That's Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court. Zorkin penned an article last week in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" (that's the official Russian government newspaper, by the way), calling for -- wait for it -- a return to serfdom. A big h/t to Elena Holodny at Business Insider for flagging this.

Here's the money quote:

"Even with all of its shortcomings, serfdom was exactly the main staple holding the inner unity of the nation. It was no accident that the peasants, according to historians, told their former masters after the reforms: 'We were yours, and you — ours.'"

Zorkin also took a shot at Pyotr Stolypin, the 19th century reformist prime minister (and a hero of Vladimir Putin's), and his judicial reforms.

"Stolypin's reform took away communal justice from the peasants in exchange for individual freedom, which almost none of them knew how to live and which was depriving their community guarantees of survival."

I wonder what that portends. Zorking also compared the abolotion of serfdom to the post-Soviet reforms of the 1990s.


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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