Monday, April 6, 2020

Putin and Russian Officials Aren’t Behaving like Politicians, Stanovaya Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 3 – Neither Vladimir Putin nor his senior officials are behaving as many in the West would expect politicians sensitive to the interests and needs of the people below them, Tatyana Stanovaya says, for the very simple reason that neither he nor they are politicians in the Western sense.

            Putin sees himself as a national leader who has been legitimated not by election but by history, an attitude that has only intensified since he seized Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, the Carnegie Moscow Center analyst says. And he has reduced all those below him to appointed bureaucrats rather than politicians (

            But there is a fundamental problem: those below don’t always know what Putin wants unless he speaks because there is no system like the CPSU network that existed in Soviet times. Consequently, he must speak often or those below him don’t know what they should do and act unpredictably, not because of pressure from below but because they are unsure of what to do.

            Thus, he is compelled to adopt a more hands on approach than he would like lest the system go off the rails or simply fail to continue to function, Stanovaya suggests.

            This difficulty has been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis. “Putin simply doesn’t view the threat of the epidemic as part of the presidential agenda.” He is delegating because his vision of his role is different and more elevated not because he is seeking to avoid being linked to bad news, the concern that guides many real Western politicians.

            That has meant that he has intervened sporadically rather than constantly, but this has proved “insufficient to overcome the disorientation of the state machine” that this rapidly moving crisis has produced.  Something similar just happened with the disastrous efforts to amend the constitution, Stanovaya says.

            The result in both cases has been improvisation from below followed by brief interventions by Putin followed by more improvisation and by the multiplication and duplication of structures often set up by the Kremlin leader himself to deal with problems but that have the effect of further confusing the situation.

            Because the lower-ranking officials do not know what Putin really wants, they avoid doing anything that might get them in trouble with him, acting without invoking rules and further weakening the system because “the greater the illegality, the fewer rights your enemies have” is “the main insurance of Putin managers from siloviki to governors.”

            That inevitably has created not just “dual power” but even multiple centers of power, as with the Moscow mayor being given rather than having taken the power to make decisions on the response to the coronavirus not only in his city but across the country. But Putin’s decision to do that reignited the conflict between Sobyanin and the Presidential Administration.

            “The growing disunity within the elite is exacerbated by yet another characteristic of the Russian system – the absence of dialogue between the powers and the society,” Stanovaya argues. “This is because both the government and the governors have been completely depoliticized. Not the population but the president will judge their work.”

             The two times Putin has spoken to the nation about the coronavirus he has really been directing his words at the bureaucracy rather than the population. “The problem is a deficit of leadership not only administrative but political. The state has been transformed into a mechanism of exclusively control and supervisory force, thus losing its legitimacy.”

            After 20 years of being built, the analyst says, “the Putin system has become self-isolated from society as if from a contagious virus. The fight against the epidemic will continue, but the goal of that fight is not to save the population but rather for each individual manager to protect himself and curry favor with those above.”

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