Streetwise Professor

November 30, 2012

Putin’s Agorophobia: Physical Health, or Political?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:35 pm

All sorts of rumors are flying about regarding Putin’s health.  The most recent due to the cancellation of Japan PM Noda’s visit to Moscow: Noda supposedly blamed the cancellation on Putin’s health.  The restricted travel schedule-and the lack of macho stunts-do suggest that Putin has suffered some sort of injury.  The excuses given-notably, Putin doesn’t want to leave his dacha because of his concerns about Moscow traffic-strain credulity, so something is amiss clearly.

I wonder though if that the main issue is not physical health, but political.  The current spate of accusations of corruption-Serdyukov and others in the MOD, the head of Rostelecom, the head of GLONASS-have been portrayed as an attempt by Putin to co-opt the opposition (Navalny in particular), or as a means of reorganizing the cadres upon his resumption of power.  But another interpretation is that it is symptomatic of a breakdown in the equilibrium between contending factions-clans, if you like-in the elite.

In Russia, everyone in the elite is corrupt.  Corruption is a way of providing incentives to play along (you play along, you get a slice of the spoils) along the lines of what Douglas Allen describes as the role of corruption in early-modern Britain.  And corruption is not just carrot, but stick: everyone is dirty, and therefore vulnerable to corruption charges if they don’t play along.  It is a form of MAD-mutually assured destruction.

If that equilibrium holds, everyone is corrupt but no corruption charges are ever filed agains the elite.  If that equilibrium breaks down-which can occur if the political longevity of the leader comes into question, as is plausible for Putin given the unexpected rise of the opposition and the perhaps surprising discontent with his way of reassuming the presidency-one plausible effect is a series of tit-for-tat corruption allegations/charges. So the spate of corruption allegations is potentially politically portentous.

The breakdown in the MAD equilibrium-or even the suggestion that the MAD equilibrium is tenuous-makes it very dangerous for Putin, whose main job is to maintain that equilibrium, to travel abroad for extended periods.  No doubt he remembers that the 1991 coup against Gorbachev occurred when he went to Crimea on holiday.

It could well be that Putin is willing to put up with rumors about his bad back because admitting the real reason for staying close to Moscow almost continuously-a highly unstable political situation among the elite-would have cataclysmic effects.  Nothing destabilizes a regime like an admission that the regime is potentially unstable.  As I wrote long ago, a regime like Putin’s depends on exploiting the difficulty of the opposition to coordinate and coalesce.  The main way of increasing this difficulty is to convince those dissatisfied with the regime that their opposition is futile because the regime is popular and united.  If it becomes evident that the regime is in fact vulnerable, this can become self-fulfilling.  Opponents-and not just the Navalnys, but people within the elite thinking of seizing their main chance-become emboldened, and that can unleash a feedback loop that spirals out of control.

Putin’s reluctance to go outside-his agoraphobia, if you will-therefore may have little to do with his physical condition, although that may provide a convenient (if denied) excuse.  It may have much more to do with his political condition.

I don’t know for sure, but it bears watching.

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  1. No doubt he remembers that the 1991 coup against Gorbachev occurred when he went to Crimea on holiday.

    And Khruschev. The move to oust him came when he was on holiday in Abkhazia. When he flew back to Moscow, he was no longer in charge.

    Comment by Tim Newman — December 1, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  2. Neither Gorbachev, nor Khrushchev were popular at the time. The alpha-clown has nothing to fear. Anyway, the real Putin died in a skiing accident in Sochi in 2007. These are his doubles running around. Ears don’t lie:

    Neither do eyes. His nickname was fish-eyes – “Вова вобла-глазый”. They are gun-slits now. Or maybe his threat to turn to the East was no joke.

    Comment by So? — December 1, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  3. It’s true that neither Khruschev or Gorbachev were popular, but insofar as the opinions of the ordinary citizens go, this is irrelevant. Gorbachev and Khruschev were unpopular with the elite and the citizenry, but it was only their unpopularity with the former that cost them their positions. What the citizenry thought was neither here nor there.

    And that’s the danger for Putin. He’s popular among the ordinary folk yes, but that’s not going to save him if he is unpopular among the elite. And I’m quite sure he knows this. If Putin falls, a narrative will be whipped up by his successors and within a month or two he’ll be considered worse than Stalin. It’s not as though Russia doesn’t have form in rewriting the biographies of former leaders weeks after they fall.

    Comment by Tim Newman — December 2, 2012 @ 6:23 am

  4. @So-looks like the same little rat man to me. Maybe the rat ears and rat eyes have changed slightly but still the same basic rodent features overall. I doubt they could have found a dwarf sufficiently tired of circus life to become his double.

    He may be having his spine lengthened so that he doesn’t have to look up to towering Chinese dignitaries-embarassing that.

    Comment by pahoben — December 3, 2012 @ 7:58 am

  5. @So-looks like the same little rat man to me. Maybe the ears and eyes have changed slightly but still the same basic rodent features overall. I doubt they could have found a dwarf sufficiently tired of circus life to become his double.

    He may be having his spine lengthened so that he doesn’t have to look up to towering Chinese dignitaries-embarassing that.

    Comment by pahoben — December 3, 2012 @ 7:59 am

  6. This week’s Economist had an article on Putin and him trying to coopt the corruption issue. I found it strange if this is his actual strategy because it will likely backfire given how corrupt the top levels of his administration are. This can’t work unless Putin is seen as personally uncorruptible and if the people are convinced he intends to clean house. If the corruption is only limited to symbolic targets, I don’t think he can take the issue away from the opposition – it’ll only embolden them to demand more. Putin can’t do more than symbolic attacks because he risks eliminating those who support him (or more likely provoke them into supporting someone else). It’ll like Nixon sacking Haldemann and Ehrlichman – if the cuts need to be that high and deep, the head is already lost.

    I think this shows that Putin is very worried about this issue. He knows he must do something to placate the mob, but it hoping he can keep it limited. He must be betting he can do enough to weaken the opposition while retaining enough control of the clans. This tightrope walking is generally not a good strategy – to much risk something will go wrong – but it can succeed for a while provided no other mass disruption happens. Some leaders can make it work, but those who do generally know they are weak and swiftly adapt to changing situations with no concern other than their political survivor. Most leaders can’t make it work as they have other goals they are trying to meet as well – and Putin’s geopolitical goals are of this nature.

    Comment by Chris — December 3, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  7. Tim-I think you are referencing a previous version of Soviet history. Stalin is officially a good guy again with unparalleled accomplishments and Putin would be gratified by the comparison.

    Comment by pahoben — December 3, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

  8. Putin lookalikes are not that hard to find:

    Anyway, St Petersburg (and North Russia in general) was always renowned for having tall people, even if we take into account the stunted growth of the post-war generation. Putin is short. Medvedev is shorter still. (Although I think his runtiness is exaggerated by the Putinoids. The two, in fact, are on par. His big head and lack of shoulders are his downfall). Most of Putin’s cronies from St Petersburg are of average height at best.

    What do the amateur psychologists have to say about that?
    Medvedev visits a primary classroom:
    – When I was little…
    Someone pipes up:
    – But you’re still little!

    Comment by So? — December 3, 2012 @ 9:49 pm

  9. @Chris. This spate of corruption allegations at the heart of the elite does raise questions. But it is just another case of Russia as enigma, mystery, and riddle. Exactly what is going on is very hard to discern.

    All I can say is that it is symptomatic of Putin’s vulnerability. How, exactly, is harder to judge. One plausible alternative is the one you advance: he feels so pressured by the populace’s disgust with corruption that he has to do something, to throw a few sacrificial lambs to the baying demotic wolves. Which would mean that popular discontent has unnerved Putin. Another alternative is that he has lost control of the elites, and they are fighting among themselves. Or that he feels that he has to put down a challenge from within the elite, and is playing the corruption charge card to do that.

    I can’t see circumstances in which this could mean that all is well in Putin-land. This kind of thing can easily spin out of control. And Putin is all about control.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 3, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

  10. @So-your links fail to fully capture the likeness. I think this link shows not only a physical but also a spiritual similarity that is downright eerie.

    Comment by pahoben — December 5, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  11. Recent online article in Foreign Policy suggests the anti-corruption drive is taking over Russian media, and that it is deeply unnerving to the elite clans as you mentioned. This creates a lot of uncertainty for Putin.

    A possible solution for him is to offer limited amnesty for past corruption in exchange for confessions of their own crimes and knowledge of others. That could save key stakeholders in Putin’s system while purging the system of its least desirable elements. Of course, to pacify the mob, he’ll need not just a thorough housecleaning, but measures to prevent this level of corruption going forward. It could potentially be done, but Putin would need to be very confidant of its success (in keeping him in power).

    Otherwise, this kind of thing quickly metstasizes. You can’t do halfassed reforms – you only alienate existing stakeholders while failing to win new supporters.

    Comment by Chris — December 6, 2012 @ 11:06 am

  12. There is a a legend amongst the Putinoids, that his hands are tied by the bad boyars. But now the world crisis has given him a break and he’ll cleanse the elites any minute now. They’ve been saying this for at least a couple of years though.

    Comment by So? — December 7, 2012 @ 1:46 am

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