The Power Vertical Myth

Alexander Golts, editor of the liberal Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, has written an editorial in the Moscow Times which I think is emblematic of the misunderstanding of Putin’s power among Russia’s opposition. Entitled, “Nobody Is Listening to Putin Anymore“, the op-ed points to the recent scandal surrounding Alexander Bastrykin and Novaya gazeta‘s deputy editor Sergei Sokolov and Rosoboronexport, the Russian weapon export agency, allegedly sharing of ballistic missile technology with Iran as examples that Putin’s “power vertical” is collapsing.

The narrative runs thus: Golts suggests that Bastrykin personally ordered the apartment searches of Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, Ksenia Sobchak, and others as a way to divert attention from his own impending scandal. The scandal involves Bastrykin threatening the life of Sergei Sokolov for articles the journalist wrote suggesting Bastrykin was party of organized crime. Golts continues to explain Bastrykin’s order to ransack oppositionists’ apartments as a means “to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin in the hopes that his patron would shield him from the scandal.” Bastrykin apparently miscalculated. Putin didn’t shield him from the scandal, and the Chekist publicly apologized to Sokolov and Novaya gazeta for his “emotional outburst.” Golts’ point, however, is that the order to search oppositionist apartments for is an example of Bastrykin going rogue and bucking the power vertical.

Golts’ example of Rosoboronexport follows forthwith. If a Russian state agency is independently supplying Iran with ballistic missile tech, then Rosoboronexport and its head Anatoly Isaikin is bucking the power vertical for bureaucratic and/or personal gain. This assertion is bolstered by the US National Intelligence Council’s admittance that the Russian government “is not pursuing a policy in support of the Iranian missile program” and “is unable to control the activities of state companies and cannot prevent them from participating in illegal transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Golts concludes:

[T]here is reason to believe that the power vertical Putin has tried to erect over the past 12 years is collapsing. Putin’s authoritarianism no longer resembles an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects. Now the regime looks more like a chaotic feudal system that has been weakened by overly independent and obstinate local chiefs.

Putin’s “new nobility,” as Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev in 2005 called the chekists in Putin’s ruling elite, have started to view their respective agencies as their personal property. In reality, they report to Putin on paper only. It has even reached the point where state agencies are developing their own domestic and foreign policies.

Thus, we don’t know for sure whether Bastrykin and Rosoboronexport head Anatoly Isaikin are carrying out state policy as defined by Putin as an authoritarian leader or are acting out of purely selfish interests. And it also leads to the more basic question of where Putin’s authority ends and where the new robber barons’ authority begins.

True, we don’t know if the tail is wagging the dog, the dog is wagging the tail, or if the tail is just wagging. Russian elite politics remains opaque. But my issue is more with Golts’ argument. Saying that Putin’s power vertical “is collapsing” assumes that it existed in the first place. In fact, the passage quoted above reveals a tension between the “power vertical” as becoming and already existing. So Golts writes, “the power vertical Putin has tried to erect over the past 12 years,” suggesting that the “power vertical” is still in becoming, but has yet to formally concertize.  Yet at the same time, Golts writes, “Putin’s authoritarianism no longer resembles an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects,” indicating that Putin already has a power vertical in place that he exercises like an autocrat and his subjects dutifully carry out his decrees. So which is it? Is the power vertical in becoming or is it already being?

This is no mere philosophical question. Whether Putin has or hasn’t a power vertical informs the Russian opposition’s entire analysis.  If Putin’s subordinates are “faithfully” carrying out his orders, then focusing on Putin as the alpha and omega of your movement’s message makes sense. Once the big bad Putin is deposed, one assumes things will inevitably be better. There is no need to formulate a social and economic program. There is no need to think about new political and social organization, power flows, and structures. Nor is there need to confront the real fissures between contradictory liberal, nationalist and left ideologies within the movement. As Kirill Kobrin rightly stated in this week’s Power Vertical Podcast, the Russian opposition’s focus on Putin is a strength and a weakness. It keeps them united in the short term, thus sustaining a movement, but fails to address real concerns in Russian daily life that could give it long term sustainability, as that would break the movement apart.

The problem is that the belief in Putin’s power vertical, not to mention that it now is collapsing, is a misdiagnosis. If Putin has managed to establish a power vertical then he is truly the most adept Russian leader in its 1000 plus year history. With a functioning and omnipotent power vertical, Putin has been able to do what Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and even Stalin failed to do. The fact is the power vertical as, in Golts’ words, “an autocratic monarchy in which the king alone makes decisions that are faithfully carried out by his subjects” is an utter myth. This relation between the autocrat and his subordinates has never existed in Russia (and I would venture anywhere else). This is evident in one simple example. As Richard Sakwa points out in his The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, and the Medvedev Succession, by 2008, when Putin left office, over 1,800 of his presidential decrees had not been implemented (32). Clearly, Putin’s subjects were not carrying out his faithful decisions then too. Yet, in 2008, Putin’s power was considered unshakable. To suggest that “serious cracks in Putin’s power vertical are now apparent” only reinforces an illusion that misidentifies where power in Russia really lies: in an small elite on top of a vast bureaucracy of which Putin is a very powerful player, especially symbolically, but not a completely essential member.

Perhaps defining Putin’s power vertical as putting into practice all of the vozhd’s orders is a misnomer. Perhaps the power vertical is best viewed minimally as an albeit feeble disciplinary mechanism. It’s power is in part based on myth and part on actual legal power. Myth in the sense that Putin’s power vertical exists only in as much as others believe in it. Here the power vertical is merely symbolic power represented by the presidential signature and stamp on a document or the performance of Putin sitting at a desk grilling his subordinates. As long as those symbols maintain their influence, does the power vertical show any modicum of functioning. The only real concrete power of the vertical is Putin’s legal prerogative to sack anyone he pleases. But even here his agency is circumscribed because while theoretically everyone is expendable, some are more expendable than others depending on the circumstances. Russia remains a fragmented state, with power organized more in networks and circles than vertical structures. Putin is more a creature of the system than its owner. And ironically, the myth of the power vertical is more authoritative than the leader’s constitutional prerogatives. It is the former that gives the real substance to the latter.

Critics like Golts would do well to dispose of the power vertical myth all together. Not only does its sacred belief produce bad analysis, it engenders bad, and dare I say, stagnant politics. This is why the opposition’s “Manifesto for a Free Russia” is so empty, and another “March of Millions” on 7 October, Putin’s birthday no less, inspires little enthusiasm. Both acts re-inscribe the very myth that is the basis of Putin’s power. In order to ultimately go beyond Putin, one must get over him.