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The Pokazukha Liberalization

Televisions in a Moscow shop showing an interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2009.
Televisions in a Moscow shop showing an interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2009.
Is it real or is it pokazukha?

This is usually the first question on the minds of Kremlin-watchers when something happens to suggest high-level infighting among Russia's ruling elite. It comes up whenever there are signs of division in the ruling tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev (and the order I listed them here was no accident). And it certainly should be question number one whenever there are rumblings in or near the corridors of power about liberalizing the system.

Look! Putin and Medvedev sent very different messages about modernization at a State Council meeting. Is a rift really opening up in the tandem over policy? Or is this just for show? Is it real, or is it pokazukha?

Holy cow! Federation Council Speaker and erstwhile Putin ally Sergei Mironov publicly criticized Russia's national leader and then got into a noisy public spat with the ruling Untied Russia party. Is the elite splitting apart at the seams? Or it this just a diversion? Is it real or is it pokazukha?

Check this out! On the same day, both Putin and Medvedev both indicated that they will seek the presidency in 2012. Is the tandem on the brink of collapse? Is it real or is it pokazukha?

In a recent article in "Newsweek," Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova make a very strong case that for all Medvedev's talk of reform and modernization, in the end it's all just pokazukha.

Here's the money quote, in which Matthews and Nemtsova cite Russian political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya (one of Moscow's leading experts on the Kremlin elite):

Far from being challenges to Putin, Medvedev's initiatives, according to Kryshtanovskaya, are all part of a clearly defined plan, called Russia 2020, that was cooked up by the Putin team as long ago as 2005. Phase one, carried out by Putin himself, was to make his hold on power unassailable by bringing all media and political parties under Kremlin control. Phase two, now underway, is to impose a highly controlled version of liberalization from above that will include more freedom of expression, a friendlier face toward the West, and inviting former liberal critics to act as Kremlin advisers.

This highly limited and tightly controlled flirtation with liberalization has been expedited and intensified, the authors argue, because the economic downturn has "forced the government to come up with a new liberal paradigm to dampen flickers of social discontent," with hopes that "allowing a degree of free speech and creating the appearance of responsive government will keep voters happy."

It is also necessary because the ruling elite needs better relations with the West in order to protect the estimated $200 billion to $300 billion that has been skimmed from the Russian economy over the past decade. Here are Matthews and Nemtsova, citing Yelena Panfilova of Transparency International Russia:

To keep these ill-gotten assets safe, Russia's kleptocrats need to ensure that future generations of leaders never try to bring them to justice and that foreigners don't pry too deeply. 'All the Kremlin's money is abroad, and [the siloviki] realize they should make friends with the Americans in order to provide themselves and their money some security,' says Panfilova. The best way to avoid scrutiny is to seem to lead, or at least endorse, the cause of reform—or so the thinking goes.

So I guess we can call what has been going on a "pokazukha liberalization."

It's a bit ironic that Putin and his team, who clearly favor a Yury Andropov-style authoritarian modernization, are now being forced -- albeit temporarily and reluctantly -- to pursue policies more reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. And we all remember how that exercise in controlled liberalization turned out.

Truth told, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what is going on here and haven't reached any definitive conclusions. In the past, I have written that Putin and his inner circle were seeking to establish "an enduring political system -- a centralized, authoritarian, vertically integrated and unitary executive that can manage a thorough and comprehensive modernization of Russia." Essentially Andropov's vision of modernization.

I still believe that was the plan. The recent pokazukha liberalization (if you can even call it that) was probably an adjustment brought on by the economic crisis. But I still believe that for the key members of Putin's inner circle -- and certainly for key siloviki like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin -- the goals of the original plan remain intact.

In a recent interview with "Svobodnaya pressa," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin makes a point that goes to the very heart of why this gang is not going to let its power be whittled away without a fight:

Putin has built a system of government in which a person standing at its top is above the law, parliament, and courts. Above everything, because everything is subordinated to him. Consequently, if you lose this place, a different person comes who is above the law and parliament. The one who has left the place at the pinnacle of the vertical system becomes absolutely defenseless and protected only by good will of the new leader. If this good will runs out, the former leader becomes vulnerable. What is even more dangerous, people from his team also become vulnerable: naked, weak, ones you can do whatever you want with.

This is an option typical of South Korea, where powerful presidents, after they served their term in office, were brought to trial on corruption charges and convicted. This option absolutely does not suit the Putin team. This means that by definition, they cannot leave the vertical system. In the political jargon, it is called the absence of an exit strategy. Vertical models of government in principle provide no exit strategy. In this system, you cannot just go and engage in private affairs, as Bill Clinton did. It is either you command or you are commanded. Therefore, it is not so important whether Putin will run in elections or sends someone else to run for him. It is important that power should remain in the hands of this group.

This is all very true and almost certainly reflects the Kremlin elite's thinking. But the problem is what starts out as pokazukha doesn't always remain that way. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own. Discontent in society is very real. (Kaliningrad anyone?) The middle and lower rungs of the elite are getting very restless. (see Igor Yurgens and his allies) Can those at the higher level be too far behind?

And although oil prices have recovered much of their losses, living standards are not going to improve under the current system as fast as many Russians were led to believe during the heady days of Putin's second term.

Despite the Kremlin's best-laid plans, this all remains very unpredictable and highly unstable.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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