Streetwise Professor

December 5, 2011

Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:08 am

The failure of United Russia to break the 50 percent level in Sunday’s Duma election is a major shock, given its huge structural advantages and the relentless efforts of the Russian government to undermine, marginalize, discredit, starve, and crush any potential opposition.

Putin spit out a statement that this result was “optimal.”  Tell me another one!  Some of his pilot fish have elaborated on his statement, claiming that (a) a win is a win, and (b) the narrow margin gives the lie to allegations about vote fraud, intimidation, etc.  That’s even more hilarious, (b) especially.  The supposed Putin juggernaut can’t even muster 50 percent despite the structural advantages AND its shameless vote rigging, especially in all the usual places (e.g., Chechnya).

So what does this bode for the future?  Many are asking what Putin does now.  Several measures are likely:

  1. Even more populism, with lavish promises regarding pensions, state investments, limitations on increases in utility tariffs.
  2. Nationalist appeals, complete with dark tales about foreign conspiracies to destroy Russia.
  3. Relatedly, even more truculence in foreign policy, e.g., Syria, BMD, the Near Abroad.
  4. A pretty brutal purge of cadres in United Russia.  I think Medvedev might carry the can on this one.

And one can imagine even more sinister developments.  Ed from Pickerhead (who kindly links to SWP with some frequency) emailed to ask: Who will be Putin’s Kirov?  Don’t rule it out.

But the important thing about this election is that the question is no longer merely what will Putin do?, but what will Putin be forced to react to?

Authoritarian systems like Russia’s under Putin depend very, very heavily on the Wizard of Oz effect.  The perception that the leader is a great and powerful wizard, unchallenged and unchallengeable.   Putin has quite clearly cultivated such an image.

But a Russian electorate, mulish and apathetic as it is, has pulled back the curtain.  It has shown that the giant projected image of a strong, popular leader is just a product of political technology.

This completely changes the dynamics going forward.  Any challenge to an authoritarian leader is daunted by coordination problems.  In the political science literature, there is the concept of “falsification of preferences”, whereby people in authoritarian regimes disguise their true feelings about it, and feign support out of fear of retribution.  Given this aura of popularity, any individual is reluctant to step out, in the belief that others will support the regime.   Thus, given this belief, it is difficult to coordinate opposition to an authoritarian leader, permitting him to thrive despite the fact that he is actually unpopular.

Once this belief is punctured, however, the equilibrium can shift rapidly from broad (though feigned) support, to widespread opposition.

The election results create this very real risk for Putin at the popular level.  He must also face challenges within the elite, and within the siloviki in particular.  As I have noted many times, he plays the role as balancer among competing factions within the elite.  His ability to do so depends crucially on the perception that he is in fact powerful and indispensable.  That perception has been dented by the election, making him far more vulnerable to challenge from within the elite. Individual bureaucrats will have to figure out how the political winds will blow, and will trim accordingly.  Deals made in exchange to support challengers that would have been unimaginable Friday are now conceivable.  Potential challengers will be emboldened.  The factions will attempt to exploit the weakening of the balancer by attempting to achieve dominance over their rivals in the belief that Putin’s power to intervene is limited.  (Think of a mafia war when the capo di tutti capi is weakened.)

Which all means that Putin will be on the defensive.  Given this, he is likely to try to preempt the opposition, popular and inter-elite, by cracking down.  The crackdown on any opponents within the elite, real or imagined, is likely to be swift and unrelenting.  (This is why the Kirov scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.)

The crackdown on dissent expressed by ordinary Russians will be more challenging.  Going all Muscovite on the opposition poses considerable risk of galvanizing and unifying the opposition, and destroying any pretense that Putin is  a popular embodiment of Russia and Russians.  But being soft will make it easier for the palpable discontent to coalesce into a real political force. Given that the result was likely unexpected, any response is likely to be ad hoc and extemporized, increasing the potential for mistakes.

During the financial crisis, I noted that regimes like Putin’s are extremely brittle.  Due to the coordination game aspect of authoritarian rule, when authoritarian regimes fall, they collapse quickly.  The crucial element opponents face is overcoming the problems of coordinating their opposition.  Both within the elite, and the populace more broadly, the Duma elections have undermined the belief that the wizard is all powerful.  Maintenance of this belief is key to preventing coordinated opposition.

This election results challenge this belief.  This has the potential to change dramatically the dynamics of the Russian political system in the next 3 months leading up to the presidential vote.  Putin will do everything possible to try to restore the belief.  But it is easier to maintain it when it is unquestioned, that to reestablish it when it is in doubt.

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  1. Professor, your analysis relies on the assumption that yesterday’s “procedure” in Russia was to some extent an actual election. I doubt it. My guess would be that the result was unexpected to outsiders, not to Putin, while the/a purpose of “50%” was for Putin to be able to say “the narrow margin gives the lie to allegations about vote fraud”.

    Putin remained the unchallenged czar while “serving under another president”. He will remain equally unchallenged with an “opposition parliament”. I guess we all know by now that Medvedev never was a president. Apparently some of us still have to catch up on the knowledge that the Russian Duma is not a parliament 🙂

    Comment by Ivan — December 5, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  2. Ivan–maybe. But that’s a very dangerous game for him to play. And to clarify: I put no weight on the Duma, and have no illusions that it is a parliament. I agree that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that the voting outcome changes the dynamic, which is predicated on the belief that Putin is the single unifying force in Russia, widely beloved. The 50 pct result, and the widespread interpretation of that, discredits that belief. The importance of that belief in maintaining the political equilibrium cannot be underestimated. It’s for exactly that reason why I think that Putin would be a fool to aim for 50 % to discredit the fraud allegations. If that interpretation is not accepted, it would be extremely destabilizing. And it is not being accepted, except by the KoolAid crowd.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 5, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  3. And the fact that it was so obviously a procedure makes it all the more damaging when the procedure doesn’t work.

    This is a perception game–a game where the outcome depends on beliefs. Even if–which I doubt–Putin et al wanted the 50 pct result so they could claim it shows that Russia is a real democracy, their intent is meaningless if everyone else interprets it differently. They have to control the result and the narrative. They have lost control of the narrative: the “giving the lie” narrative has not taken hold, but the “Putin has suffered a setback” narrative has. That is a big threat to them, given the coordination game dynamics at work here.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 5, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  4. > They have lost control of the narrative: the “giving the lie” narrative has not taken hold, but the “Putin has suffered a setback” narrative has.

    Not clear to me why you believe the above. There are actually two narratives, not one.

    The “giving a lie” narrative (of the mighty Potyomkin village tradition) is exclusively for the West : as far as they cannot equate Putin with Lukashenka (and “50%” guarantees they cannot), the Western diplomats will have to continue with the “reset” BS. The Medvedev fraud worked like a charm, why won’t this one?

    And for internal consumption, the narrative is unchanged: Putin is the czar, pay no attention to his puppet, nor to the 450 of them. This one will not necessarily work, but for reasons similar to those that brought down the USSR, not because of “election results”.

    Comment by Ivan — December 5, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  5. The MO of the Putin FSB/criminal syndicate is to stuff the ballot boxes and harass the opposition in order to guarantee an election victory. When Putin was popular, this resulted in huge (ridiculous) majorities but as much as they want to, they can’t falsify every ballot. Now that United Russia is just squeaking by, it is a clear sign not only to the government, but to the people (who have seen through this game for some time now) that support is gone. The article recently linked to your comments by La Russophobe,8599,2100950,00.html
    is a good illustration of what is really going on. I don’t believe the low percentage for UR is planned because in the past Putin seemed not the least bit concerned for the appearance of fair elections. Besides, how does it look that the only independent election monitoring organization in the country, Golos, was shut down and harassed just before the vote.

    Comment by Gordon — December 5, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  6. If UR were to get a good result, it would have been due to rigging.

    If a bad result, it would be due to Russians’ hatred of Putin.

    Who cares about Western chauvinist blowhards? I don’t. Neither should Russia’s elected leaders, who are accountable only to Russians and history.

    United Russia got a result (49.5%) almost perfectly in line with pre-electoral opinion polls (low 50%’s) and the exit poll (48.5%). It can rest confident in its democratic mandate, without reference to perennial liberal malcontents and their foreign financial and moral backers.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 5, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  7. But the Wizard of OZ wasn’t a camera whore. Putin jumped the shark in 2007 and has been his own worst parody ever since. IMO, this is his fundamental weakness – valuing loyalty over ability. Case in point the recent booing ovation. Competent PR would have simply ignored it, brushed it off, instead they only exacerbated it with lame contradictory excuses. Really competent PR would not have had him there at all.

    I will pre-empt his PR team here. 4 years ago Putin lead the UR election candidate list, this time it was Medvedev. So it’s Medvedev’s failure! Medvedev – loser! Putin – winner!

    Comment by So? — December 5, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  8. S/O. You crack me up. You keep on thinking that, guy. The problem is that Putin now faces the real risk of being held accountable to Russians. That’s what keeps him up nights. You need to be realistic about the way authoritarian systems work.

    So?-re your Medvedev point, that’s exactly what I meant by “Medvedev will carry the can on this one.” But the scapegoating will not solve the fundamental problem. If, as is pretty clear, Medvedev was Putin’s puppet, blaming the results on Medvedev won’t really help Putin’s standing.

    And yes, Putin did jump the shark, but due to the falsification of preferences effect he didn’t realize it. There was no feedback mechanism. The illusion of popularity persisted. Now that’s been demolished. Now people are not as prone to falsifying preferences. That can lead to a jump to a new equilibrium–one which is very bad for Putin.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 5, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  9. Who cares about the Putin-mafias Sublim chauvinist blowhards? The lazy Russian communist student in california can not read ?
    Sublime Oblivion(Quote) … E.g., I’m going to vote for the KPRF and its presidential candidate (Zyuganov?).

    The country has never seen such a dirty election,” said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who dismissed the official results as “theft on an especially grand scale.”

    Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has compared United Russia to the Soviet Communist Party and advised Putin not to return to the presidency, said the election was “not the most honest.”

    “We do not have real democracy and we will not have it if the government is afraid of their people, afraid to say things openly,” Gorbachev, the father of far-reaching reforms in the final years of the Soviet Union, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

    Comment by Oleg — December 5, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  10. … almost perfectly in line…

    Too bad it’s a bit out of line with the Gauss distribution.

    Статистика выборов по Москве: двуголовая гидра

    Comment by peter — December 5, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

  11. I think this was just amateur night. The professional ballot box stuffers will appear in March to give Vova a larger majority but he still needs a 21st century Beria to accomplish his full post election aims. I remember the rumors about Medvedev studying Putin’s speech to better mimic the master. If after the election Medvedev starts appearing in wire rim glasses with his hair cut shorter than we will know who Putin has cast as Beria.

    In recent months Putin whacked or allowed to be whacked-his wife, Sechin, Medvedev, and Kydrin and he surely has aspirations of whacking a great deal more of the elites. He is too careful and devious to do it himself and so he needs someone trusted to do the dirty work. The Professor suggests Medvedev and that is reasonable considering Dima’s weakness of character allows him to be almost completely controlled. I do not believe though that Dima can pull off everything the master would hope of him.

    What great spin it would make. United Russia is not that popular but Putin is very popular. It then becomes a popular mandate for Putin to rid the Party of corrupt and anti-Russian elements and instructs Medevedev to seek out those cosmopolitans and deal with them harshly.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  12. @pahoben–I understand your theory. Stratfor has a similar theory. I just think it’s too clever by half. There is a huge tail risk–if it doesn’t work as planned, the whole edifice collapses.

    I also believe that Putin is going to try to milk this for all that it is worth by flogging the stability and chaos theme. A little chaos now would be quite useful in that regard. But again, this strategy could go seriously haywire if he can’t control the chaos like a thermostat.

    Such strategies would be understandable for someone who is completely arrogant and self-assured. But remember: pride goeth before the fall. Nemisis stalks Hubris.

    It’s also a sensible strategy for someone who is desperate, and has to take big risks to survive.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 5, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

  13. Putin “whacked” his wife?

    I’m not sure of your exact meaning there?

    She’s a ghost anyway. The most invisible First Lady in international politics. I’ve always found that rather odd.

    Comment by gardener1 — December 5, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

  14. gardener-She was sent to a monastery to allow his womanizing.

    Professor I agree 100%-he is extremely careful in picking battles he is sure to win. The first sentences stand. This was amateur night and the pros will be involved in March.

    I think he aspires to be more autocratic and done with the balancing but if he pursues this course it will be in baby steps. Who would have thought a few years ago that he could so easily bring Sechin to heel?

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

  15. Yes, I’ve seen this absurd claim before.

    To the best of my knowledge, women are not allowed to join Russian monasteries. Or any monasteries I’ve ever heard of.

    I wonder where this wacky rumor originated? And shame on you pahoben for believing such nonsense. Monastery indeed…..

    Comment by gardener1 — December 5, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  16. Putin Derangement Syndrome can make one believe anything.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 5, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  17. gardener-not sure what you are talking about. The Russian word for convent is монастырь and the Russian word for monastery is монастырь. There is no distinction in the Orthodox church.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

  18. I realize it’s off topic, but I’m curious. Where is your substantiation for this claim that Putin had his wife *whacked* and shipped off to a monastery?

    Let’s see some evidence to back up this ridiculous claim.

    Comment by gardener1 — December 5, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

  19. I was being kind. Okay his wife has been seen in public for some time and he is womanizing. She did become devout orthodox in the early 90’s after a near fatal car wreck in Kaliningrad. She did recuperate in a MONASTERY in Pskov and that MONASTERY was upgraded about the time she stopped appearing in public. I have not personally seen her in this monastery but it is reasonable considering the other facts. There are certainly other explanations for her lack of public appearance and Putin’s womanizing.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

  20. I am not sure of your nationality but considering the circumstances and in Russia it would not be a ridiculous claim.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

  21. My wife assures me she is often in St Peterburg and only visits the monastery. In any event out of sight out of mind.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

  22. Professor-the only time I saw Putin fearful and uncertain was just before he selected Medvedev-he wasn’t certain about the reaction of the Siloviki. Once it was accepted by all the players that Medvedev would be president without any major problems he was clearly ebullient. In hindsight he made the right choice and has retained power.

    It seems to me that he is not happy with the status quo and would like to further consolidate power (imagine that). If he thought he could do it quickly then he would but his caution will likely result in a more measured approach. He seems to be acting with ever increasing impunity but I agree he is far to cautious to gamble on a roll of the dice unless as you say he is desperate. I do not believe that to be the case.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  23. Our only difference in opinion may be that you ascribe his fundamental motivation as maintenance of the status quo and I believe he has other “loftier” goals in mind.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

  24. > Now people are not as prone to falsifying preferences.

    This is groundless as far as I can tell. “Falsifying preferences” a la Russe is not “almost everyone loves Putin, so I better shut up”. It is “almost everyone is a brute, so we need a strong hand”. This equilibrium is much stabler and will produce Putin upon Putin no matter what, until the evil empire collapses again.

    Comment by Ivan — December 6, 2011 @ 1:15 am

  25. Re the mone3stary – she probably isn’t in one, but the Orthodox have Nunneries (Convents): there is a big Old Calendarist one near Jordanville, New York, a Greek Orthodox priest I know just set up one in Calistoga, CA and let us not forget where Peter the Great ditched his elder (Half?)sister Sophia after his coup!

    re Womanizing – it is possible, but remember who got the polonium milkshake when he accused Putin of pederasty. Lavender coverup, polymorphous perversity or just immoral – take your pick.

    Whatever the cause of his near defeat: a “cunning plan” a la Black Adder, or a screw up, he seems to be losing the publicity battle, even in cynical old Rus. To put this in the Slavic mode, we shouldn’t say he is hoist by his own petard; instead I propose we rename him : VLAD THE IMPALED

    Comment by Sotos — December 6, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  26. Just for context, the Putin’s wife to monastery started off as a two sentence blog post by some blogger dude who heard it from his mom. It spread from there.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 6, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  27. More MVD units reportedly moving in to Moscow. These still seem to be small demonstrations for all the attention they are getting.

    I was in Moscow and spent a day in the vicinity of the Russian White House the last time the army proper entered Moscow. Now those were demonstration.

    Comment by pahoben — December 6, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  28. LOL. Peskov has already stated that EP’s and Putin’s popularity are two different things.

    Comment by So? — December 6, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  29. LOL-LOL -Peskov said “Putin’s popularity and the popularity of the party are two different things” and that “Putin was never directly connected” to United Russia.

    Comment by Anders — December 6, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  30. Gee S/O and gardener I am glad to know that in fact Mr and Mrs Putin are living together in matrimonial harmony and Mr Putin is honoring his sacred wedding vows. My mistake I guess

    Comment by pahoben — December 6, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

  31. The Putin’s matrimonial bliss is of no concern to me.

    But when a president is accused of whacking his wife, these are serious allegations which beg for substantiation.

    So far no facts have been presented which would corroborate this story.
    I am not surprised.

    Comment by gardener1 — December 6, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

  32. When you put it like that I would have to say he stopped whacking his wife in favor of younger targets.

    Comment by pahoben — December 6, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  33. I am sure S/O can explain it but for me United Russia is surprisingly popular in Chechnaya reportedly receiving 99.5% of the vote.

    Five out of every thousand Chechens need reeducation.

    Comment by pahoben — December 6, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  34. off topic
    Professor-did you see TNK-BP is operating the former BP properties in Viet Nam and looking to buy more properties there. BP was trying to rid themselves of this offshore development for quite a long time. As I remember the gas price they were receiving was very low. Friedman and the boys must want to move more money out of Putinland-hard to understand otherwise.

    Comment by pahoben — December 6, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

  35. @Pahoben. I remember writing some time ago about the fact that one of the sources of tension b/t BP and AAR was the latter’s desire to invest overseas. The BS cover story is that they wanted to be like a real int’l major, but that BP was stopping them b/c it didn’t want the competition. Sure. My take was like yours–they just want to get as much capital as possible outside of the grasp of Putin, Sechin, etc. Nobody said they were stupid.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 6, 2011 @ 9:54 pm


    Your intellectual dishonesty is TRULY breathtaking. If Putin won big, you’d say it proves he’s loved. If he loses big, you’d say it proves Russia is democratic. You would not concede a bad result for Putin under ANY circumstances, yet you condemn Russophobes for adopting that attitude. You are are truly, deeply, deranged.

    Russians DOCUMENTED MASSIVE FRAUD, and they poured into the streets to protest it. DESPITE that fraud, Putin’s party STILL lost one-third of its seats in the Duma.

    If you think that’s a good result for Putin, you need to have your head not examined but replaces surgically.

    Comment by La Russophobe — December 7, 2011 @ 8:16 am

  37. > Putin’s party STILL lost one-third of its seats in the Duma

    to the other three Putin’s parties.

    Comment by Ivan — December 7, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  38. A graph of United Russia vote percentage against the number of polling stations where the percentage was observed:

    Yet another indicator that the overall 50% was the actual target. The spikes at 5-percent intervals apparently reflect the “granularity” of individual falsification targets.

    Alternative interpretations, anyone?

    Comment by Ivan — December 7, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

  39. Ivan
    Neat post, neat graph, and unavoidable conclusion. The discontinuity between 49 and 50% is hilarious. The big spike at 99%+ must include all the polling stations in Chechnaya. I guess it was too difficult to manage unless the targets were multiples of 5%.

    Comment by pahoben — December 7, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

  40. Well, you’re probably right about 1-4, and I agree about the bit about brittle authoritarians.

    What if the way that brittle authoritarians give themselves some more shelf life is to have the “tandem” be now those two “ruling parties,” and Just Russia is
    invited to help do 1-4 with United Russia. Just Russia might be more enthusiastic about some of the 1-4 even than United Russia, and then if it
    fails, United Russia can pin the failure of 1-4 on Just Russia. It will be a neat trick. A few legislative actions that annoy pensioners or something and Putin could
    have a wider margin next year.

    Comment by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick — December 10, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  41. […] In the immediate aftermath of the Duma election, I predicted Putin would do the following: […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Putin’s Arms Race — February 20, 2012 @ 11:04 am

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