Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Defiance, Delusion and Stagnation: an Analysis of Putin's State of the Nation Address

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, giving his State of the Nation address

 Call it what you will, but Vladimir Putin's State of the Nation speech on December 4th marked an abrupt departure from, if not his so-called doctrine of Putinism, then certainly from the people's and perhaps even his own conviction in it. Furthermore, I believe that this is an event

which may very well come to demarcate the year that Putin's luck finally ran out. To find out why this event is so important, let us first take a look at what political features comprise Putinism. We will then analyze the text itself and why it was so poorly received, finally concluding with an assessment of what changes might be on the horizon, based on the observed substantive changes in this most recent speech.
It is impossible to discuss Putinism without at least briefly discussing how Boris Yeltsin governed and shaped Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Collapse. In general, regimes that emerge during a transition from one political system to another are dominated by the presence of a charismatic leader, who can consequently take advantage of extremely weak political institutions with no ability for mobilization. In Yeltsin's Russia, the remaining Soviet political institutions, namely the Supreme Soviet (essentially the Soviet
A gathering of the Supreme Soviet in the early 1990s.
parliament), posed a significant obstacle to Yeltsin's agenda, opposing him at every turn with every ounce of political capital they possessed. From early in his presidency, it was clear that Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet would be forever diametrically opposed, which likely provided the primary impetus for Yeltsin to crush that body. He accomplished this by devolving a significant amount of power to the
Oblast' (state) and local levels of government, which then allowed Yeltsin to "undercut" the mandate of the Supreme Soviet, eventually forcing them from power. Let it be observed by all that this was the first major political initiative in post-Soviet Russia.
Next Yeltsin's presidency entered a period in which it was characterized by a substantive loss of traction with the masses, stemming from the defeat of the Supreme Soviet, which represented the only tangible and credible threat of a coup to restore the old system. From there, Yeltsin's Russia stabilized around a model of Military-Bureaucratic consolidation of power, in which the State and military acted exclusively to preserve their own interests. At this point, the Kremlin began the lengthy process of transferring the massive state owned assets into private hands, which, as many of my readers may know, resulted in the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, well positioned individuals. It was essentially in this form that power remained consolidated under Yeltsin up until New Year's Eve, 2000.
The regime inherited by Putin was one that was totally decentralized, with political power significantly devolved and economic power in the hands of a class of oligarchs. It is with this reality that the Putin regime has struggled since day one, a struggle that has consisted primarily of (1) sacking a number of oligarchs (see: Mikhail Khodorkovsky) to restore the economic power of the Kremlin, and (2) using political means to consolidate authority in the at the federal level. In achieving the latter, Putin's regime has murdered and threatened journalists as well as political opponents, bribed and cajoled their way into Oblast' level and local level administrations, and of course invaded sovereign nations, most notably Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, both of which have resulted in increasing the territory of the Russian Federation. This is, in essence, Putinism.
Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitrii Medvedev, asleep at Sochi
Dmitrii Medvedev having another ill-timed nap
The text of the speech itself can be found in English here. The reaction to the address, as mentioned earlier, was tepid at best. In fact, it has been recently argued by many respected Kremlinologists that this speech had much more in common with a speech given by, say Brezhnev during the Soviet Era of Stagnation, especially in comparison to Putin's most recent major policy speech, following the seizure of Crimea. All of the telltale signs were there: applause was muted at best as Putin riffed on the Stalinesque themes of cracking down on the "fifth column" of society, while increasing the efficiency of the government bureaucracy charged with overseeing the food system and threatening "unnamed creditors" who are underhandedly causing the ongoing devaluation of the Ruble. Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev even fell asleep, as Brezhnev himself was wont to do. It seems that stagnation is a likely outcome according to many of the most credible Russia watchers, an assessment with which I concur decidedly.
Another key feature of this speech was the first claim from Putin that Crimea represents a holy place for Russians on par with that of the Temple Mount for Jews, a claim that has baffled Russian historians. Besides the offensive nature of these comments to both Jews and Muslims (not to mention anyone with a sense of historical justice), this is simply a bad move at a political and geopolitical level- and worse, It seems to indicate sloppy planning by a regime inundated in political and economic crises, which provides ample reason for worry on behalf of responsible state actors (and people for that matter).
This is all coming in the midst of the recent attacks in Chechnya (reported below), which have fueled concern over a resurgence of the domestic terrorism that has plagued Russia for decades, most notably punctuated by the Beslan Tragedy.
Coming out of this speech, it is probable that we can expect the Russian state to further careen toward consolidating power in the Kremlin while attempting to assert itself militarily abroad, in conjunction with pushing misinformation and their psuedo-Soviet ideology on all who will listen, but especially those disaffected by the United States' numerous and ghastly blunders in recent years.
The State of the Empire seems wobbly at best these days.
An Addendum/Further explanation to the above post:
The aforementioned change in tone really was most marked in comparison to other speeches that Putin has given. I believe that I cited his Crimea annexation speech as a contrast (which might be best compared to Obama's "I killed Bin-Laden" speech, in terms of gravity and importance to the people). The primary reason for this is that Putin has seemed to lose his way in applying some of the aspects of Putinism that helped it gain traction with the people, namely the use of Orthodox Christian lore (as it pertains to the inception of Kievan Rus' - which was essentially the source of Russian civilization) to justify belligerent Russian actions in general, but especially the seizure of Crimea and War in Donbass. As I mentioned in the post, he for the first time used the Crimea as Temple Mount for Russians argument. So it's not that this is necessarily evidence of him backing away (perhaps I should review the exact language of the post), but of increasing sloppiness and decreasing effectiveness of these measures.
But while he continues down the same rhetorical paths, the reactions are growing more tepid (especially among the powerful elite) and worried as the economy and ruble continue to tank, oil prices slide (which supplies the vast majority of the Russian Federation's annual budget) and Russian military involvement in Ukraine becomes undeniable and untenable (with the blame for MH-17 not far behind).
There is also the legacy of the Era of Stagnation hanging over all of this. The stability of cadres has been the equilibrium point for Russia in recent history, in which development and innovation suffer at the hands of enforced bureaucratic and military stability, not to mention the state of human and personal rights. Many respected observers believe that this speech showed many signs of a coming stagnation under Putinism.
I strongly believe that Vladimir Putin is a man who is psychologically incapable of changing course, especially when making decisions with such meaningful repercussions for Russia (but probably in every aspect of his life). He seems to be losing control of the narrative to a greater extent than before, and many Kremlinologists believe that Putin's luck is about to run out.