Monday, May 21, 2018

The Putin Paradox: The More He Strengthens the Vertical, the Weaker It Becomes, Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 21 – Vladimir Putin now finds himself in a paradoxical situation, Vladimir Sokratilin says. The more he strengthens the power vertical and gives the siloviki ever greater influence over events, the weaker it and he becomes, as the failure of the August 1991 coup showed.

            Many are overread poll results showing that 90 percent of Russians aren’t ready to take part in protests, the sociologist points out. In fact, the share that is prepared to do so will rise to 100 percent as happened in Volokolamsk and Kemerovo if an event provides a focus for popular discontent (

            At present, he says, “the situation is stable” in the absence of such triggers, “people live quietly, but the level of social tension is dangerously high.” If conditions deteriorate slowly, people won’t go into the streets; but if something like a fire or an accident happens, then they will because they see no other way to press their causes, Sokratilin continues.

            “If in society there are mechanisms which allow for the resolution of such conflicts, then a social explosion won’t occur,” he says. But over the past decade, in the name of building the power vertical, Putin has destroyed most of those mechanism and any popular belief that they can be effective in resolving problems.

            Instead, Russians see a system where it isn’t open politics that decides outcomes but the struggle of clans behind the scenes each of which seeks to use or is very much part of the siloviki. The latter, of course, “have their own interests;” and it is significant that the work siloviki has followed sputnik into international discourse. 

            The rise of the siloviki has occurred, the sociologist argues, because Putin has destroyed democratic procedures and the separation of powers and “what is most important” has created a situation in which officials don’t have to take public opinion into account but rather have to concern themselves only with interested siloviki.

            There is yet another shortcoming in Putin’s system: “no serious official however much he may want to can involve himself with the development of the sector he is responsible for because he is forced to spend all his time on repulsing hostile attacks and conducting his own” as a condition of remaining in power.

            This is a big change from a decade of so ago. In 2008, mayors were still elected in most places. Consequently, when Kondopoga happened, no one ever raised the possibility of resolving it by the use of force.  Officials thought first and foremost “about how to conduct a propaganda campaign, as it was called.”

            But today in Volokolamsk, Russian officials turn to force first, not seeing any need to pay attention to the views of the population.  Indeed, Sokratilin says, “officials are no longer concerned about a feedback loop with the population; they are worried only about their own positions in the system of power.”

            Apologists for this new system “justly say that the people of Russia has never lived as well as it does not,” the sociologist continues. “That is true. But at the same time, the sense of injustice in the organization of the life of society and the alienation of the powers in public consciousness is very strong.”

            When the powers that be think first of all about applying force against those who do protest, that has another consequence which may prove fatal:  The application of limited amounts of force “fight only the most intellectual and well-disposed part” of those protesting. And that means that “the more radical part” remains.

            “Force, unfortunately, gives rise to force,” Sokratilin points out. And as the events at the end of Soviet times show, when the population starts to blame the siloviki for the use of force, the siloviki will begin to calculate whether they should follow orders to suppress the population, knowing they are certain to be blamed and even sold out by the political types.

            “In the USSR, there was also a harsh power vertical and an uncompromising under the rug struggle among the siloviki of that time.  When the political elite used the army as in Tbilisi, the army got blamed.  And that meant that in August 1991, commanders were much more reluctant to be used against the population.

            “What can we expect under contemporary conditions? The suppression of mass risings – this carries with it big risks.”  If passers-by are wounded or killed, the situation can easily get dangerously out of hand.  Many discount this because they do not feel Russians have experienced “the last drop” of oppression.

            But that is a mistake, Sokratilin says, because in fact the appropriate model is one in which the pressure of social tensions is such, that any massive protest that would lead the Kremlin to use force in a massive way could touch off a far greater social and thus political explosion than anyone expects.

            What this trigger will be is impossible to say, just as it was impossible just months ago to predict the rise of protests in Volokolamsk.

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