Monday, August 29, 2016

The Power Vertical

Why The Kremlin Is Losing

Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Remember when something called "the Family" dominated Russian politics and Boris Berezovsky looked invincible?

It wasn't that long ago. Just over a decade back.
In late 1999, I was having dinner in a Moscow restaurant with some colleagues and we noticed Berezovsky and some hangers-on a few tables away.
One colleague gestured to the uber-oligarch's entourage, which was flanked by the usual phalanx of bodyguards, and said: "Wouldn't you love to just approach him and ask: 'Boris Abramovich, what exact scheme are you working on right now?'"
It was conventional wisdom at the time that Berezovsky was the master of Russia's political universe. As the informal leader of the so-called "Family," the shadowy collection of tycoons, cronies, and bureaucrats surrounding the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, he had the Kremlin wired and was orchestrating the rise of Vladimir Putin -- who the media called "the Family's candidate." We assumed Berezovsky would keep Putin on a tight leash, too.

We, of course, were dead wrong.

As the new millennium approached, Berezovsky and "the Family" may have looked omnipotent, but the tectonic plates supporting the political order were shifting. A new political era was on the way -- and "the Family" was on the way out (although some of its members, Roman Abramovich for example, found a place in the new order).

Inflection points like the one at the end of the 1990s can sneak up on you and there is often an analytical bias in favor of expecting the status quo to continue indefinitely. One of the tricks for Russia watchers is to know when the paradigm is about to shift, when the meta-narrative is truly changing.
Are we at such an inflection point again? I don't know for sure, of course, but I do suspect we are approaching one.
Putin still has the full weight of the Russian state at his disposal. He can use obedient courts to imprison his opponents and deploy administrative methods to rig elections. His cronies control the traditional media, the energy sector, and much of the country's heavy industry.
But regimes like Putin's don't survive on repression alone. To be stable and successful, they also need, for lack of a better term, soft power.
And on this score, 100 days into Putin's third term, it has become clear that the Kremlin has lost much of its mojo on this score. Team Putin isn't controlling the national conversation anymore. They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population. They are bickering among themselves and deeply divided. And a savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise.
Swindlers, Thieves, And Foreign Agents
There was a time when Putin could say something -- Мочить в сортире, or "wipe 'em out in the latrine," for example -- and it would be repeated endlessly and become part of the political lexicon.
It was entertaining for much of the public and burnished the president's pop culture image as an action-hero tough guy. But more importantly, Putin's colorful use of the Russian language helped establish a powerful national narrative: Russia has a strong, cool, and decisive leader and is rising up from its knees; Putin's opponents are feckless and doomed; the troubled '90s are over; we won't be pushed around anymore.
Putin's Kremlin once excelled at this kind of thing. They don't anymore. The narratives they try to push -- like blaming mass demonstrations on foreign agitators -- appear worn and dated, and Putin's scatological slang just isn't that funny anymore.
Now it is the opposition that is succeeding in getting its one-liners into the country's collective consciousness. With message discipline and tech-savvy that would make a political consultant proud, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny has managed to turn phrases like партия жуликов и воров (Party of Swindlers and Thieves) and Иностранный агент Бастрыкин (Foreign Agent Bastrykin) into powerful cultural markers.
This may seem trivial, but it's not. It is helping to establish a new counternarrative that the current ruling elite is corrupt and incompetent -- and have overstayed its welcome. According to the Levada Center, some 42 percent of Russians now agree with the statement that United Russia is a "party of swindlers and thieves."
We Exist
For an opposition narrative to take hold, it needs a receptive audience. Does anybody remember the chants of "We Need Another Russia!" from anti-Kremlin rallies, attended by a dozen or so brave souls, back in 2006 or 2007? I didn't think so.
In those days, most people didn't want another Russia. Most were fine with the one they had and it was easier for the Kremlin to marginalize, trivialize, and ridicule its opponents. It's not so easy today.
Never mind the tens of thousands who can be counted on to regularly show up at opposition protests in Moscow. The broader public opinion poll numbers tell an even starker story.
Putin's raw approval rating is somewhere between the mid-50s and low 60s, depending on the poll. But as political analyst Kirill Rogov pointed out in a much-discussed article last month, it isn't as solid as it appears at first glance. 
"This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has, in effect, lost his mandate," Rogov wrote.

According to the Levada Center data that Rogov cites, Putin's hardcore supporters number between 15-20 percent, while his soft and conditional support is between 40-45 percent. But most of these people, the data show, do not want him to rule in the same manner he did between 2000-08. These soft-core supporters want another Putin, and they aren't getting one -- which means they can flip to the other side at any time.
Putin's hard-core opponents, meanwhile, number about 15 percent, while another 15-20 percent "share the anti-Putin mood to some extent."
One of the most powerful slogans to emerge over the past eight months actually wasn't produced by Navalny. I'm not sure where it came from, but It showed up on numerous placards at protests and was part of the refrain in one of Pussy Riot's (pre-Christ the Savior Cathedral) performances.
It was simply: "We Exist."
A powerful constituency for change does, indeed, exist now. It grew out of the increasingly confident middle class that emerged during Putin's rule. It is powered and networked by increased Internet penetration and the explosion of social networks. And it's not going away anytime soon.
The Next Generation
Yeah, but there isn't any real alternative to Putin and his team. The opposition is a hodgepodge of nationalists, leftists, and liberals and has no viable leaders.
These are common refrains, repeated by Kremlin-friendly spinmeisters since mass antigovernment demonstrations broke out in December.
And there is a degree of truth to this. At each period of change in recent Russian history, there has been a leader-in-waiting ready to take charge.
As the Soviet Union imploded, it was, of course, Yeltsin. And as Yeltsin's chaotic, turbulent, and corruption-tainted presidency wound down, there was the anointed successor Putin, whose style of rule reminded no one of Yeltsin.
Now there is...nobody.
But the flaw with this line of thinking is the assumption that just because change is in the air, the regime's fall is imminent. I don't think it is.
What I think is happening is that Team Putin has lost the initiative and lost it decisively. They have no rationale for their continued rule other than, well, they want their rule to continue. They could still be in power for awhile. But the hyperconfident Kremlin we saw during Putin's first two terms is a thing of the past.
And meanwhile, the opposition -- that hodgepodge of liberals, leftists, and nationalists -- is gearing up for a long endgame.
In the autumn, they will hold online primaries to choose a 45-member council that will be tasked with making key decisions, like which candidates will run in local elections, which initiatives to support, and when to hold demonstrations.

"The problem of the opposition's legitimacy needs to be decided through elections, [especially] if we are going to accuse the authorities of lacking legitimacy," Navalny said in a video explaining the primaries on his blog this week. 


The primaries won't quite produce a shadow government. But they'll be a start.
The Deep State Deep-Sixed?
When the history of this period is written, one date will likely loom large as the beginning of the end for the current ruling elite: September 24, 2011.
That was the day when it was announced at the United Russia congress that Putin would return to the presidency and Dmitry Medvedev would become prime minister.
It was also the day when what I like to call Russia's "deep state," a permanent super-elite that rules outside the confines of constitutional law, came to the surface -- and in the process lost a large degree of its legitimacy.
As New York University's Mark Galeotti pointed out in an earlier edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep."

In other words, everyone knows it is there but everyone pretends that it's not.
As Mark explained, Putin made the mistake of "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell, inflamed public opinion, and created crippling divisions within the elite itself.
"The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," he said. "Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Aleksei Navalny,Russian opposition

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Americanuck from: Toronto
August 14, 2012 21:32
This is an excellent analysis. But I do wonder how the Putin regime can ever fall if there is no replacement for it. At the moment, the opposition consists of social movements, NGOs, and individuals. What's missing is a political party or coalition of parties that can actually formulate a coherent platform and present itself as an alternative to Tsar Vladimir and PZhiV.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
August 15, 2012 11:30
Putin has been in power for a while; baggage inevitably accumulates and the bold reformer is transformed into a cautious and conflicted manager. But does that mean that he is on his way out-- no. To be fair Brian, you don't predict a collapse here. I think he serves out his term and retires. The economy is still chugging along, the security forces completely back him, the so-called "opposition" is itself divided, deeply unpopular and advocates discredited and "worn out" ideas. Communism and Americanization both failed disastrously-- producing a dizzying social, economic, military, and political collapse. Putinism has produced progress on the whole, not perfection mind you, but progress. Why trade partial success for inevitable and complete failure. Not logical. Russia's uninspiring political scene is also reflected elsewhere in the world-- including here in the US. We have a choice between Obama's failed ideas and a retread of those of President Bush (which got us into our current problems in the first place). Western Europe, even China and India now look to have uninspiring and uncertain political climates as well.
In Response

by: George Eccles
August 24, 2012 15:03
No chance of a replacement, surely? As my new novel 'The Oligarch: A Thriller' clearly demonstrates, the Russian President is strenghtening his hold over the country rather than losing it.

by: Marsha from: Russia
August 14, 2012 21:41

by: David Edick Jr from: San Diego, CA
August 15, 2012 05:03
Sharp analysis, Brian. Nice work. Thanks.

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 05:57
Memories......light the corners of my mind..........Mmmmm....Misty water-coloured memories......of when the corporate-raider oligarchs ran Russia....

A "savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise"? Where? To date, they have kept themselves well-hidden, which doesn't bode well for those supposedly seeking a leadership role.

"They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population."

Really? What gives you that idea? A drop in polled support month-over-month? Come on. If the presidential election were re-run next week, are you suggesting someone other than Putin would win? No? What, then, is supposed to be inferred from this supposed loss of support of important segments of the population? If the answer is that Putin would win, easily, the loss of support you imply is ipso facto neither important nor real.

Online primaries will be held to more sharply define and consolidate the opposition. Look for a big surge in midnight-oil purchases by the Kremlin this fall, I'm sure they will be burning a lot of it as they worry about how to meet this powerful new threat. You know what will happen? Pretty much an electronic version of Sakharov Prospekt, where Navalny threatened to take the Kremlin if it didn't stop lying, Kudrin was booed and Prokhorov elected not to speak. Euphoria, but absolutely no coherent plan at all. If the opposition had a plan, it might actually be a threat. In the absence of one, all it can do is shout "Putin is a crook", and spin visions of a strong independent liberal Russia that somehow will not rely on energy revenues, since that is Putin's chief stupidity.

You keep alluding to a "powerful constituency for change" that "isn't going away anytime soon". Where? According to most western press sources, the elite - presumably the prime movers of this constituency for change - are fleeing Russia at a horrifying rate. How can this be, if the constituency for change is always growing and is not going away? Is the "nascent middle class" - the ones who elected Putin - replacing the elite as the constituency for change? I'm afraid I need convincing. Are the elite being replaced as the elite by the nascent middle class? Who in their right mind would depose a leader who achieved that?

Rather than this supposed groundswell not going away soon, it is already gone and is unlikely to resume without the emergence of an electrifying, unifying opposition leader. So far, the horizon looks pretty empty.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 13:12
Nice comment and thanks for balancing Brian’s perhaps misplaced hope for change. However, I share some of Brian’s sense that the internal political situation is becoming pregnant with an understanding that the system needs repair. Advances in technology and social media have weakened the power-vertical. Every time there is another disaster, the Kremlin team tries to self-manage the situation and dampen down sparks of social protest. What happens if they can no longer put out the fires, stop the floods, release the hostages, etc…? At some point, the average Russian might simply get fed up with the lies, hypocrisy and corruption, and demand a greater voice in running the country.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 17:44
Ray, if ordinary people could run the country, they'd be doing it. Ordinary people are too busy making a living to attend endless meetings on municipal codes, highway repairs and construction proposals. Ordinary people elect representatives to perform those tasks for them. The system under which they do that is referred to as a democracy as defined by popular democracy advocate Karl Popper if it is not a dictatorship or a tyranny, if the people are able to control their leaders and oust them without a revolution. Is Russia a dictatorship, do you think? An election was just held, in which Putin could have been driven from power if that were the people's choice. It manifestly was not; even the staunchest anti-Putin sources grudgingly admit that the most optimistic levels (meaning the highest) of vote fraud accused would not have kept Putin from the presidency. Western sources focus on vote fraud because that is one of the electoral tactics whose use is quite rare in the west. Voter suppression is something else again, and there are plenty of examples of western dodges to disenfranchise groups that predictably vote a certain way. Every government uses dirty tricks to stay in power for as long as the law allows.

There's no disputing the system needs repair - if it's not perfect, it needs constant adjustment to get it as close to the ideal as is practical. And I wouldn't say Brian's hope for change is misplaced; I think we all hope for change. It seems clear from much of what you can read here, though, that this blog simply wants Putin gone and a liberal in his place. As the old saw goes, that's change - but is it progress? Change for the sake of change is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the TITANIC. The aim of change should be the betterment of the citizens' lives and the improvement of the infrastructure that serves them, for their benefit and not that of outside interests focued on regime change as a strategic goal.

You might think that lies, hypocrisy and corruption are exclusive to Russia. Au contraire, mon frere. There is more than enough of each in pretty much any government you care to name. However, the list of countries that are the focus of western complaint and social engineering is pretty short.

The idea that the average citizen wants to run the country is a popular myth. Running the country is an enormous responsibility, and ordinary citizens have little objection to that job being done on their behalf provided it is run the way they imagine they would do it if they had the time and the education. Everybody thinks the country could be run a little better for their personal benefit, so that they received higher pay, more vacation time and lots of diverting entertainment that is to their personal taste. But most everybody is willing to forego a little of that personal benefit if it is apparent the country is moving in the right direction and the nation as a whole benefits.

Is that the case in Russia, do you think? Is the average citizen's life judged on those benchmarks getting better, or worse? Believe me, if Russians were getting less pay every year and having to work harder and longer for it, you'd hear about it in excruciating detail. In fact, Russian living standards, broadly applied, have risen steadily. You can tell they have, because the focus of complaint is "Putin is too reliant on energy revenues!!!" instead of "Putin is cheatring the people and they make less now than they did in 2000!!"

What do you suppose Mikhail Prokhorov or Aleksey Navalny or Boris Nemtsov would use to fund his plans and projects for Russia if he were leader tomorrow? The stuffed-toy market? Sexy calendars of Russian girls? Of course not - any liberal leader of Russia would rely heavily on energy revenues to prop up the budget.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 19:29
Again, a lot of good comments and thanks for your thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert, and agree, Russians alone should decide which form of government is best for their country. I think Brian’s point was that at least some Russian people may not be satisfied with the status quo, but instead of allowing them to voice their complaints, the Putin government has now resorted to greater repression. Besides the folks at RFE, there are some smart Russians who believe that repressing just concerns and basic rights could, in the long-term, have tragic consequences.

No, I don’t think the country is run by a ‘dictatorship,’ though I suspect that important political decisions are made by a small group of people around Putin. I also agree that Russians are quite like any other people, in what they want from life, their goals and their dreams. I do think, however, that the civil-contract in Russia has been damaged, and that for good reason, some Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives use their office to line their wallets. No citizen enjoys paying taxes or performing other civil duties, but most are willing to do their share as long as the schools are decent, the water safe to drink, the garbage collected, roads are safe etc….

You are right, the quality of life for many Russians has improved greatly over the past decade, but I sense that many Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives are not doing enough to strengthen the country’s social fabric (i.e. schools, roads, environment, medical etc…). This has led some to protest, and when that same quasi-corrupt government suppresses this protest, well, sooner or later, you will reach what Brian calls an ‘inflection point.’ Are we there? Who knows, and my point was simply the new tools available that will allow more Russians to perhaps coalesce and demand greater accountability from their politicians.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 15, 2012 06:07
Once again congratulations to the author of this "brillaint" section: just as on most occasions, the article is so uninteresting that no one cared to comment on it (I know, there are a couple of guys who are still trying to "digest" the content :-))). I am really concerned of the economic well-being of the author once budgetary cuts (that are becoming a brandmark of any advanced market economy) arrive to the offices of RFE/RL a couple of months from now :-)).
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 15, 2012 14:23
I fully understand your concern, Eugenio, and I am worried, too. If budgetary cuts spell the end of RFE/RL, then we will have to vent our frustrations elsewhere, or, God forbid, we might actually need to find full-time jobs.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 16, 2012 07:43
Konstantin, reminding the nation of Beavus and Butthead of the fact that they are getting militarily defeated on all the fronts, getting kicked out of one country after the other (Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Serbia etc etc etc) AND of the fact that the US and their NATO allies are going bankrupt while this kind of web-sites try to look for some imaginary problems elsewhere IS a full-time job: what do you think I got the money for to go on vacation on the Black Sea, while you were rotting in front of your computer screan ? :-))) Cheers from Vienna!
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 16, 2012 14:08
If that's your job, then you might need to get a life. Besides, very few Americans read this website. You're preaching to the choir, vato. If the reason behind your anger is that your advances were rejected by a US soldier, then don't feel too bad. I am sure you found true love on your gay cruise in the Black Sea. Cheers from Los Angeles. :))))
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 30, 2012 11:10
Eugenio, lying again!
I write only under my own name!
Are you one of those that organized murder of my mother,
7/7/2012, using your part-relatives, German nazis from CIA,
so you would lie about me and non-Russian nations,
while I wouldn't be able to reply to you?
Trying to be another lying Russian "hero", Kadochnikov?

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 16, 2012 04:42
Bravo for standing firm, Ray, and you are right - the roads and the transportation systems and the little conveniences that make life easier do need improvement. However, I don't see a great deal of what is popularly referred to as "repression" or "crackdowns" when protesters are disobeying the law. Demonstrations require permission, just like in every other civilized country. The vast majority of them have been approved so long as the demonstrators stay within the law, but a fairly recent one turned violent and some policemen were hurt. The demonstration turned violent when some demonstrators led by well-known opposition figures attempted to break through a police cordon and lead an unsanctioned march on the Kremlin. Surely you agree the government is not obligated to let people break the law just because they feel strongly about something, especially when they constitute less than 1% of the population. Demonstrator Alexandra Dukhanina was filmed apparently taking what turned out to be a chunk of asphalt from a bag she carried, looking around - for a target? - and throwing it. That she apparently brought it with her suggests premeditation. At least one young man was filmed dressed as a woman, and some suggest he did so in order to make his arrest appear more brutal for the cameras (he was arrested).

People who attempted to set up tents had them torn down by police. For one thing, you can't camp in the streets; it's against the law, and most would agree reasonably so. For another, the government recognized it quickly as the beginnings of establishing a tent city like the one at Maidan Square in Kiev during the Orange Revolution. There's a certain pattern to these events, the following of a playbook. The government would be foolish to let it happen, for the people's good as much as their own - the Orange Revolution was a disaster for Ukraine from every way you look at it, ushering in two terms of the worst government Ukraine has experienced as an independent nation.

The United States has laws that regulate public assembly and protest marches. If they are disobeyed, should those who disobey be allowed to break the law because they are passionate about their cause, and so that the government will not be accused of repression? Of course not.

Russia needs to improve infrastructure and transport; I think the government recognizes that. That's partly why anyone who can raise a complaint and collect a certain number of signatures has the right to have the complaint debated in the Duma. I can't think of any progressive country that allows such a right.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 16, 2012 14:16
From what I have read and experienced, Russians tend to have a more jaundiced view toward the concept of ‘law.’ While I consider laws as protective tools against the arbitrary power of the state, many Russians have a different understanding, and regard the law and their legal system as just so many weapons in the hands of the elite. In this type of understanding, ‘following the law’ will usually only bring delay, grief or added expense.

Who threw the first punch in the May 2012 demonstrations in Moscow? Impossible to tell, but history suggests that Russian security forces have been known to provoke violence to justify a greater crackdown. I would not be surprised to discover that some of the protestors were on the police payroll.

The concern of the Putin entourage in preventing an Orange Revolution may have less to do with maintaining public order than with a gnawing sense that their political legitimacy is partially based upon fear, deception, and coercion.

It may be disingenuous to compare protests in the US with those in Russia. While the US is no paragon of virtue, the steel-boot and truncheon have much greater utility in Russia.

BTW, have you ever lived in Russia, visited a police station or one of their prisons? Theory is well and good, but reality can be a tad more sobering.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 17, 2012 05:11
You say, Ray, that your views are based on what you have read and experienced. Have you spent much time in Russia, yourself? Been part of a demonstration in Moscow? No? Yet you seem perfectly prepared to believe the police pay protesters - opposition leaders, at that - to start something so they have an excuse to crack down. Why? Because "that's what history suggests". And where did you get that history? You probably read it.

But I'll bet that, presented with the story about how Navalny, with great ceremony and lots of press, discovered a bug in his would never occur to you that Navalny put it there himself, or had it put there, to make himself look important, feared by the Kremlin. Why? Because Navalny is one of the good guys, and the good guys would never do that. Never mind that Navalny's emails are regularly hacked by those who disagree with him, his phone conversations recorded, and that snooping is now completely wireless. Even 15 years ago you could stand across the street and hear everything said in Navalny's office with a good parabolic mike. But no; the FSB must have bugged Navalny's office with 1970's technology, a clumsy electronic bug the size of your little fingernail. You could probably put everything in the Library of Congress on there.

Yes, crowd policing is generally a good deal more violent in Russia than in the USA. Starting a business is harder. The standard of living is lower. Public transport is mostly terrible in comparison. I've never been arrested in Russia, so I've never been in a police station or in a prison in Russia, although I hear the latter are terrible and see no reason to imagine they're not. Forced to choose between the two, I'd live in the USA.

None of that means it's a dungheap filled with mindless savages. It's filled with people who are fiercely proud of their country, and who become bitter and cynical when all they get is constant abuse and derision. Especially considering Russia is certainly far less corrupt, rotten and contemptuous of human rights than Saudi Arabia, which for some reason is a valued ally of the USA and rarely criticized, even gently. Russia is criticized and mocked, all day long, day in and day out, and virtually none of it is constructive - like, "You guys are doing this all wrong. We had that problem, and here's what we did; try it, and if you have trouble, call me. I'll help you". No, it's more like "You suck. Be like us".

I lived in the Russian Far East for about half a year, a month at a time spread over 5 years. My wife is Russian, from the Far East, near Vladivostok. I'd be more likely to believe her than I would a western newspaper or blog. Particularly considering she's never lied to me, and newspapers lie all the time. And joke about it afterward.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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