Is This the Twilight of the Putin Era?

Intrigue, mayhem, and public shenanigans have gripped the upper echelons of the Russian elite -- just as they did in last days of Boris Yeltsin's rule.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the town of Krymsk in the Krasnodar region January 11, 2013. (Reuters)

Somebody is out to get Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Or somebody is setting up Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Or both. Or neither. But regardless, something pretty weird appears to be going on.
 
A slick feature-length video appeared online last week attacking Medvedev for selling out Russia's interests in the Middle East during his presidency by implicitly backing NATO's air campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. And he did do, the video claims, against the express wishes of Vladimir Putin. The film, which runs more than an hour and features top Russian military figures, popped up on what appeared to be Rogozin's YouTube page. Rogozin has staunchly denied having anything to do with it -- or even having a YouTube page.
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So was this yet another in a long string of attacks on Medvedev? It bears a striking resemblance to another online video that appeared last summer attacking him for his alleged indecisiveness during Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

Or was it an elaborate provocation to discredit Rogozin, a bombastic nationalist and divisive figure whose star has been rising of late? There are certainly many who would like to knock him down a peg and President Putin is known to disdain his lieutenants airing dirty laundry in public.
 
Who knows? But the video's appearance is symptomatic of a trend that runs deeper than the immediate question of whodunit. It is illustrative of the ongoing intrigue, mayhem, and public shenanigans that have gripped the upper echelons of the elite -- a tendency that is, to some degree, reminiscent of the twilight of former President Boris Yeltsin's rule.
 
It was just this tendency that Putin made a priority of stifling during his first stint in the Kremlin, when he established the "power vertical" and reasserted the authority and prestige of the  Russian state. The return of such 1990s-style mischief and disarray, of which last week's mysterious anti-Medvedev video is just one example, points to an erosion of this authority.
 
The Deep State and the Fake State
 
In the past several months, the State Duma has taken up legislation on everything from combating blasphemy, to banning foreign words from the Russian language, to barring dual citizens from federal television channels, to prohibiting so-called homosexual propaganda. Meanwhile, long-delayed reforms of the creaking social welfare and education systems, overhauls the Kremlin claims it wants, have gone nowhere.
 
According to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center, the Duma's approval rating is just 36 percent. Medvedev's government hasn't fared much better. Since it took office in May, there have been constant rumors of its imminent firing. Putin constantly berates the cabinet. The Duma regularly ignores its bills.

Likewise, as political analyst Leonid Bershidsky noted in a recent commentary for Bloomberg, the government isn't bothering to enforce many of the new laws the Duma has passed, leading to some angry exchanges on the floor of parliament. "In the current state of suspended animation the executive branch resembles a mammoth embedded in ice: You can examine it but cannot see any movement," political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky recently told the daily Nezavisismaya Gazeta.

Medvedev himself has become something of a punch line and a punching bag. There have been not-so-subtle jokes on television about not being able to remember the prime minister's name as well as persistent regular barbs from former ministers like Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, and Anatoly Chubais.
 
The degradation of Russia's formal institutions is an outgrowth of how the country has been governed for the past decade. Under Putin, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Duma, and the courts have largely been elaborate window dressing, a form of kabuki theater where stage-managed political set pieces were played out for public consumption. The important decisions were made by an informal super elite of about a dozen people -- a cabal of political, security, and business insiders with Putin serving as its front man and decider-in-chief.
 
Kremlin-watchers have given these shadow rulers different labels, such as the Collective Putin to Putin's Politburo. I prefer to call it Russia's Deep State. By whatever name, it is a central feature of Putinism.

For the Putin elite to rule this way, it needs to preserve the illusion that the formal institutions are effectively fulfilling their constitutional functions. In this sense, the Deep State needs the fake state to look real -- or at least plausible. And it doesn't anymore.
 
The Mask Comes Off
 
For Putinism to work effectively, not only does the fake state need to look real, but the Deep State needs to remain deep. And this ceased to be the case on September 24, 2011, when Putin and Medvedev announced their fateful "castling move" -- with Putin replacing Medvedev in the Kremlin and Medvedev taking over the prime minister's post from Putin. Once that happened, once the mask came off, the degradation of Russia's formal institutions -- from the rigged elections, to the puppet Duma, to the technical government -- was only a matter of time.
 
"The Deep State worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," longtime Kremlin-watcher and New York University professor Mark Galeotti, one of my co-hosts on the Power Vertical podcast, says. "Putin made the presence of the Deep State so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
 
In addition to exposing the facade, the castling of September 2011 led to a crisis within the Deep State itself -- with the elite's technocratic wing favoring a thaw to accommodate a changing society and the "siloviki" wing advocating a crackdown on dissent. And since that time, the Kremlin's efforts to put the old system back together again have only exacerbated the crisis.
 
The Fading Putin Majority
 
For much of the past decade, Putinism was based on more than repression. And the continued rule of a few dozen insiders was propped up by more than a facade of hollow state institutions. Putinism at its high point was also based on a broad consensus, a social contract, an unwritten compact between elite and the governed. The Kremlin provided stability and ensured rising living standards, and in exchange the population gave its loyalty.
 
It worked well after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s. But it also had an expiration date. "Last winter's crisis exposed the disintegration of the pro-Putin majority, a kind of pro-authoritarian consensus that had become established in the first half of the 2000s," political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote recently in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It became obvious that the old paradigm is coming apart at the seams, that it does not suit the most advanced and dynamic strata of the population, and in the context of falling economic growth rates it is, moreover, losing the support of ordinary people and of the regions."
 
The Kremlin's reaction to this, Rogov argues, has been to build "a new, much more conservative, Putin majority" on the ashes of the old. "In order to shape such a majority it was necessary to convince [the Kremlin's] ideological competitors that they are marginal and to convince ordinary people that they don't need these groups," Rogov wrote. "It was necessary to exploit issues that, on the one hand, arouse and outrage the advanced community, but which, on the other hand, are alien and incomprehensible to ordinary people."
 
Thus the antigay legislation. Thus the fealty to the Orthodox Church and the battle against blasphemy. Thus the xenophobic measures, like prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans and the attempts to purge the Russian language of foreign words.
 
But the plan isn't working. "This strategy turned out to be a trap for the Kremlin. A conservative majority simply is not emerging, and the hysteria goes on and on," Rogov wrote. And as a result, the country's institutions look increasingly absurd and the formal state looks increasingly fake. And with much of the elite uncomfortable with the strategy to begin with, the Kremlin's efforts are leading to even more intractable divisions and clan intrigue inside the Deep State.
 
Which brings us back to that mysterious Medvedev video that appeared online last week and what it appears to signify.
 
In the late 1990s, as the ruling elite fractured and the Yeltsin regime entered its crisis phase, the public airing of "kompromat," or compromising material, among warring factions became increasingly commonplace. One of the most memorable was a video clip that aired on state television in March 1999, that purported to show "a person resembling" the prosecutor-general at the time, Yury Skuratov, cavorting with a prostitute. At the time, the phrase "Человек, который похож на Скуратова" ("a person resembling Skuratov") entered the political lexicon as a catch phrase, a punch line, and a symbol of the authorities' bankruptcy.
 
We're not there yet, or course. But we seem to be headed in that direction.



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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