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The Soft-Power Foundations Of Putin's Russia

Patriarch Aleky (left) and President Putin see eye-to-eye (epa) November 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin's decision last month to head the Unified Russia party's list of candidates for the December legislative elections and his statements that he will -- in one form or another -- retain political power past the end of his current term as president have set the course for Russia's immediate future. For the medium term at least, the silovik network that has formed over the last eight years will retain its control of the country's political and economic levers.

On October 18, Putin told journalists that Russia's political system will need to remain "under manual control" for the next 15 to 20 years. This statement confirms the already considerable evidence that Putin and the siloviki -- a loose group of people with ties to the state-security organs or the military -- plan to expand their brand of authoritarian, state-dominated capitalism at home, while remaining on a possible collision course with Western democracies abroad.

However, it is important to recognize that the silovik network in Putin's Russia does not have the level of control -- either in terms of quantity or quality -- that the Soviet-era KGB enjoyed. For one thing, they are divided among themselves into competing clans with clashing political and economic interests. Also, there are other forces in modern Russia that have influence and must be taken into account, including business, the bureaucracy, the military, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Moreover, despite its glaring democracy deficit, Russia remains an open market economy with millions of people traveling abroad each year and -- despite some attempts to control it -- unfettered access to the Internet. Although the Kremlin controls the mass media, Russians still have access to foreign media in foreign languages and to international broadcasting in Russian and other languages of the Russian Federation.

Finally, the siloviki have had to form alliances of a sort in order to cement their power. They have allied with the huge class of government bureaucrats in the form of the so-called party of power, Unified Russia. In order to maintain their domination of the bureaucracy, the siloviki use the tried-and-true method of selective repression and intimidation. In just the last few months, governors, mayors, and other high-ranking regional officials in no fewer than 49 regions have found themselves under arrest or investigation. Such probes occasionally reach federal officials as well.

The ruling siloviki have also allied themselves with a few market-oriented liberals who have been willing to toe the Kremlin's line, as well as with a select group of obedient major business owners. Among the Kremlin-friendly liberals, it is worth naming Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko, who was one of the founders of the market-oriented Union of Rightist Forces political party. Kiriyenko has developed an ambitious $46 billion program to expand nuclear power and build dozens of new reactors in Russia and abroad, and he seems set to head a new state megacorporation that will control the entire nuclear sector, both civilian and military. It is also worth mentioning Leonid Melamed, a close associate of another pro-Kremlin liberal, Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais. In September, Melamed was tapped to head Rosnanotekh, a new state-owned high-technology megacorporation with $10 billion in start-up capital. The best-known liberal in this group is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who also chairs the advisory board of the Alrosa state diamond trader.

These liberals seem to have no objection to working in Russia's evolving system of state-driven capitalism, where property is controlled by those who have political power rather than vice versa.

Finally, the siloviki paradoxically benefit from criminal activity. By some estimates, up to 30 percent of the economy is controlled by organized crime, and Russian crime bosses spend much of their illegal capital on bribes to law-enforcement officials for legal, tactical, and administrative support. Even Putin confessed, in 2006, "our law-enforcement organs are completely corrupt."

With the aid of these alliances and by manipulating the other forces within modern Russia, Putin's siloviki have managed to gain control of the country and even achieve a measure of popular support. They have been assisted in this by the enormous wealth coming in because of high global energy prices, wealth that has enabled them to implement populist measures and raise living standards.

'Quiet Cultural Counterrevolution'

But the real secret of the siloviki is their massive and skillful use of "soft power." Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci noted that ruling classes secure their power over the governed not only through coercion, but also by manufacturing their consent by establishing "cultural hegemony" over the national consciousness. Over the last decade, the siloviki in Putin's Russia have provided a textbook example of the practical implementation of this idea, which has recently gained popularity in the country.

Over the last decade, the siloviki waged a "quiet cultural counterrevolution" with tremendous effect. They worked to systematically devalue and compromise liberal values, standards, and institutions -- values that had massive public support in the early 1990s. The main tools of this counterrevolution were the state-controlled national television networks, pro-Kremlin intellectuals, the Russian Orthodox Church, and pseudo-independent public groups and youth organizations.

At the same time, the Russian airwaves have been filled with hundreds of films, serials, documentaries, and news reports about how the chekisty (a word formed from the acronym for the original Soviet secret police that is used to describe people tied to the former KGB or other security organs) past and present are fighting against "enemies of Russia" and exposing the plots of Western intelligence services. Much of this material is of Soviet vintage, but a large and growing percentage was produced under Putin.

Mimicking the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2006 established its own national awards for works in the visual arts, cinema, literature, and journalism "creating with great artistry a positive image of the state-security officer." As for books, works extolling the KGB and its successor organizations clearly dominate over those that deal with the crimes of the communist era or the KGB. In recent years, some of Russia's energy revenues have been used to finance a growing number of new films in this genre as well.

The results of these efforts are clear in changing public attitudes and contribute to the popularity of Putin himself and his silovik administration. Today's youth, born after the fall of communism, realize that becoming a chekist is a prestigious and profitable career path. There were reportedly 10 applicants for every slot this fall at the FSB's main training academy.

KGB, Church Find Common Ground

One of the siloviki's most effective allies in this cultural counterrevolution has been the Russian Orthodox Church. During the Soviet period, the Orthodox Church and other religious groups were under the KGB's direct control. As Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the original Soviet secret police wrote: "Leave the church to the chekisty. Only they, with their specific chekist methods, can control the clerics and undermine the church from within." That decision began the strange cohabitation of the church and the KGB, with the security agency using the church's authority to influence believers at home and abroad and the KGB using church foreign dioceses as fronts for operations abroad.

After Boris Yeltsin came to power, there was some discussion of exposing the clergymen who cooperated with the KGB, but that effort never got off the ground and was quickly shelved.

In Putin's Russia, the church plays a major ideological role. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, is a close Putin loyalist. In a nationally televised sermon in 2005, Kirill said the reformers of the 1990s did not understand "that reform does not mean Westernization." A year later, the 10th World Congress of Russian People, an event organized by the Moscow Patriarchate, adopted a conception of a uniquely Russian vision of democracy and human rights, an idea that became a central tenet of the Kremlin's ideology of sovereign democracy. Speaking at the congress, Kirill said there are higher values than liberty and democracy and that the church rejects the idea that "human rights prevail over the interests of society." Patriarch Aleksy II repeated these ideas in October when he spoke from the pulpit of Notre Dame in Paris during his first-ever visit to a Catholic country.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the church in the Putin era has been its unification with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which was marked in Moscow in May. Putin personally played an active role in the reconciliation talks between the churches, which split during the Russian civil war of 1918-23.

Another significant achievement was the church's successful lobbying to create a new national holiday, People's Unity Day, which has been marked on November 4 for the last three years and replaces the old communist holiday of November 7, the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. Before 1917, November 4 was a church holiday honoring the icon the Kazan Mother of God, which is a symbol of the end of the so-called Time of Troubles in 1612. That year, Russians liberated Moscow from Polish occupation and in 1613 a Land Assembly (Zemsky sobor) chose Mikhail Romanov as tsar and created the dynasty that would rule the country until 1917.

With resonance for Russia today, the new holiday celebrates the triumph of national unity over internal dissent and foreign intervention. The initiated, however, also know that the holiday has another significance: on almost the same day, November 2, 1721, the Senate proclaimed Peter the Great an emperor and transformed the country into the Russian Empire. That event came after Peter's victory over Sweden in the Northern War, when Russia took control of the area that is now the Baltic states and Finland.

The siloviki and the Russian Orthodox Church are natural allies in the drive to build a state-dominated, authoritarian capitalist system based on traditional Russian values. The siloviki are using the authority of the church to restore more and more elements of the country's 1,000-year monarchist tradition, to which many prominent siloviki have expressed unconcealed sympathy. One recent chekist manifesto, "Project Russia," quoted the revered 19th-century cleric St. Ioann of Kronstadt as saying, "Hell is a democracy; heaven is a kingdom."

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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