Streetwise Professor

December 22, 2008


Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:51 pm

“I see a bad moon a-rising.”   Or, perhaps I should say Vladimir Putin does, for he dispatched Interior Ministry OMON troops from Moscow and the Caucusus (!) to Vladivostok to bust some heads and keep the provincials in line:

In yet another indication that Moscow fears protests in the regions could get support from local governments and thus represent a threat to itself, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin send OMON units from Moscow, Daghestan and two Siberian cities to ruthlessly suppress a second weekend of demonstrations in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.

But his transparent effort to send a message to more than just the residents of the Russian Far East appears to have backfired. Not only have people elsewhere organized similar protests, but some Russians are asking why Moscow television has not reported on the Vladivostok events and even whether the Duma should reverse Putin’s order imposing tariffs on foreign cars.

The use of troops from one region to enforce order in another is a well-established imperial policing technique, historically employed not just in Russia but in other empires as well.   Moreover, it is tantamount to an admission of distrust in the reliability of one’s troops.

Per earlier posts–and debates with Timothy & DR–this is yet another indication of the authorities’ jumpiness about their control over the population.   Whether this reflects a sober appraisal of the situation, or paranoia, or both, is impossible to tell.   But does it really matter?   Indeed, paranoia-induced heavy handedness could spark the very unrest that Putin evidently fears so much.

In other fronts of Putin’s global charm offensive, Russia’s opposition resulted in the termination of the OSCE mission in Georgia, and Russia/Gazprom completed the strongarm robbery of Serbia’s national oil company.   That’s the way to win friends and influence people.

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  1. The danger: what happens if ever the local OMON go out to protect their friends, neighbors and families from the OMON shipped in from other regions of the country?

    Comment by Michel — December 23, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  2. Good question. I wonder how much control governors exercise over local OMON forces deployed in their regions. The interests of the governors and the center are not necessarily well aligned. The Kremlin is trying to foist the cost of dealing with the crisis on the governors. The governors are pleading for help from the center. This is not a stable equilibrium. There were reports (which I read on Paul Goble’s site, I believe) that governors may withhold tax payments. That is their main leverage. This would represent a return to the 90s, and is where push would come to shove. With the sharp decline in revenues flowing into the central government’s coffers, their leverage over the regions is reduced. The governors may figure that they’re not going to get anything from Moscow anyways–because Moscow has nothing to give–and that looses the centrifugal forces that have always strained Russia’s stability.

    So, if it comes to that, and I view the odds as fairly high, how will the Kremlin collect taxes? A state with a monopoly of force can use that force to collect taxes. But does the Kremlin/White House really have a monopoly on force? Their dispatching OMON forces from Moscow and the Daghestan suggests not.

    And here’s where a coordination issue comes into play. Moscow OMON can’t be everywhere at once. As long as the disorder is localized, and does not occur in too many regions, the center can shuttle forces to trouble spots to keep the lid on things. But if several areas erupt at once, the Moscow/Caucasus forces can’t handle it all. . . which would encourage outbreaks elsewhere.

    Put differently, there is a critical mass of protest. If the outbreaks of disorder and disobedience do not achieve that critical mass, the center should be able to keep things in control. Once critical mass is achieved, however, the situation is likely to spin out of control (a la 1991).

    That’s why it is so difficult to predict the outcomes in these situations. The possible outcomes tend to be dichotomous–either nothing/minor outbreaks, or collapse.

    The center’s seeming overreaction likely reflects an understanding of these dynamics. Putin et al understand that they need to avoid the coalescence of a critical mass at all costs, hence they come down heavily on any signs of trouble. But, with a broad and deep shock to the economy that will affect all regions acutely, discontent is likely to be widespread, and disorder can break out many places at once for purely local, and seemingly trivial issues, e.g., car import duties. An authoritarian government can readily control situations when the likelihood of simultaneous disruptions in many places is low. When that probability rises–as in current circumstances–their control is much more tenuous.

    In some respect, this reasoning resembles modern models of bank runs and liquidity shocks and speculative runs on a currency. Coordination issues are the key. There tend to be multiple equilibria (calm & panic can both be equilibria), and there can be jumps from one equilibrium to another.

    And that’s what keeps the authorities awake at night.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 23, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

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