Streetwise Professor

November 15, 2007

The Consensus is Building

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:58 am

No, not over global warming. Over Putin’s Presidential Pickle. Via JRL, an excellent SWP-consistent (and approved) analysis by Kirill Rogov:

Yet it seemed like such a simple matter, at first. Vladimir Putin seemed to hold all the cards. As the end of his constitutional term approached, all he had to do was find a replacement who would be completely loyal, identifying as an appointee of the corporation led by Putin and serving as guarantor for that corporation’s asset redistributions. To provide a solid grounding, this construct required a hegemonic party to control the parliament and actively influence decision-making. The principle of the successor being accountable to the corporation could be institutionalized via this party. And Putin, acting
through the party, could remain the corporation’s leader – and thus the leader of Russia as well.

But this plan had to be abandoned. It was discovered that the sense of common purpose that united the corporation as it started redistributing assets and taking over the state had completely vanished once the commanding heights had been seized and parceled out. Moreover, in order to entrench his personal power and retain control over the disintegrating corporation, Putin was forced to allow differences to accumulate between the corporation’s various factions, and maintain conflict between them. And the attempt to transform the Kremlin’s party into a ruling party ran up against insurmountable obstacles.

The new plan seemed quite elegant, and was designed to address the abovementioned circumstances. Let’s have two loyal successors competing with each other, and two pro-Putin parties competing with each other. Whoever can manage to gain Putin’s favor will win. Two successors, two parties – and one voter, with everyone waiting on tenterhooks for him to express his will. Kind of like democracy for penguins.

But this plan had to be abandoned as well. Lackluster and timid as the deputy prime minister successors were, both of them reluctantly faced the need to start building support coalitions for themselves, boosting their influence within the state bureaucracy, and making some sort of semi-independent decisions. That meant mastering the techniques of governing the country, and acquiring a taste for it. And the rivalry between two party clienteles soon turned into a brawl, disrupting solidarity and the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Of course, Vladimir Putin himself would prefer a “succession” model a la Deng Xiaoping: retaining indisputable authority and the levers of influence, while not holding senior state office. Yet this is impossible.

By the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping was a real patriarch. He joined the Communist Party and became a revolutionary in the 1920s, rising to the top of the party hierarchy by the 1950s, losing everything (twice) and surviving two periods of exile. He was the party’s living legend – and at the same time, having been in opposition to the party leadership for years, he was not a conservative, but a proponent of modernizing the system. Moreover, due to his age, Deng Xiaoping was engaged in structuring succession system for those who would come after him, not for himself. That’s a different matter entirely.

Putin’s political biography is rather the reverse. He was swept to power in the kaleidescope of the post-revolutionary era, and the traditional elites still tend to view him as an upstart. They flatter and honor him – but this is a direct function of the fear he has managed to instill in them; or, to be more precise, the explosive mixture of fear and greed that is the mainstay of the executive-distributive hierarchy.

Consequently, as he performs the maneuvers aimed at transforming him into a “national leader” like Deng Xiaoping, Putin can’t actually let go of power or relax the reins for a single moment. Instead, he’s forced to tighten he reins still further. He’s forced to seek some sort of palliative methods of bolstering his legitimacy – such as heading United Russia’s candidate list all by himself, along with institutionalizing and encouraging his own cult of personality. And the logic of events suggests that he should carry out yet another act of repression as an object lesson: so that those who are shouting “Putin is our helmsman” won’t lose a visceral sense of what those words really mean.

Quite consistent with my analysis in WWMD, and represents another voice in favor of the Putin-Riding-the-Tiger view. It also provides an excellent depiction of Russia as a North-Wallis-Weingast natural state; a cartel of competing violence specialists kept in check through a division of spoils, but which like all cartels, is inherently unstable and always teeters on the verge of to collapse into conflict. But unlike a cartel price war, an intra-siloviki war would be a real combat, rather than metaphorical one, with real blood and real bodies (and the bodies may already be surfacing if conjectures about the poisonings of two Gosnarkcontrol agents in St. Petersburg are correct.) Thus, the much vaunted “stability” of the Putin era is very brittle, and may well be just another Potemkin facade. Given the stakes, Putin will go to whatever lengths necessary to maintain control. Past statements mean nothing. Today’s statements mean nothing. The only thing that matters is retention of power, by whatever means necessary.

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