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The Putin Presidency: Inside out

Ever since President Vladimir Putin came to power, there have been a number of attempts on the part of Western commentators to describe the political system that he has installed

Most, if not all, the descriptions are Western imports. For the past three years we have seen a number of terms being thrown around, including 'controlled democracy,' 'administered society' and even 'populist authoritarianism.' The more I think about how to describe the 'Putin system,' the more I come to the conclusion that the first mistake lies in trying to understand this phenomenon using Western terminology. Maybe some applied politological hermeneutics can give us greater insight on the world Putin has fashioned and continues to 'improve' upon.

Instead of applying terminology the West uses when discussing civil society and state building (which is not doing too well in the United States under the administration of George W. Bush), it might be better to examine at least two discernable models that are homegrown. The two models of contemporary Russia I suggest using are 'Putingarchy' and 'Putinopoly.' (I will not deny that the first interpretation is similar to a structuralist one and the second somewhat post-structuralist - and I acknowledge that both schools of thought have Western origins).

The idea of "Putingarchy" obviously echoes the type of economic and financial oligarchy that controls Russia. The nuance here is the specific role that Putin personally plays within this oligarchic system and among the oligarchs. For the most part, Putin plays the role of referee. His job is to protect what is left of state authority as the government continues its exit from the economy - which is for the most part surrendered to powerful independent financial and economic concerns. It is no wonder that Putin has appointed so many officials from the security and military forces during his term in office. (Oddly enough, there are still some who are surprised by this.) Putin and his cadre of 'unproductive elements' (who don't generate wealth, but extort rent from business or the common people) have been tasked to ensure that no single oligarch, or group of oligarchs, is strong enough to completely dominate the existing political order.

A Putingarchy is a state that enjoys the perks of nominal power and gains wealth that is skimmed from the rest of the country in the form of taxation. A Putingarchy is also a regime that is not particularly proactive in the area of policy making. When it does make policy, it is most often out of an attempt to outmaneuver an oligarch (or set of oligarchs) from preempting state authority in some area in which wealth can be captured at little cost. For the oligarchs, the rule of law is beginning to take on some meaning, as it can in principle protect their wealth from a predatory state. The state knows that manipulation of the law is its only real defense against being completely brought under the heels of the oligarchs.

Putingarchy is also an arrangement the oligarchs have personally arrived at with Putin. Putin has his own personal and very specific political style. However, little has been said about how the arrangement of oligarchic interests influences his public political persona. Putingarchy, in many ways, is remarkably apolitical: Putin has no real political ideology beyond making Russia great again. This is an ideology that can hardly be argued with, and it does not alienate the cast of oligarchs.

Putinopoly is a somewhat different animal. It is very much tied to the material interests of the oligarchs, but with some very important caveats. For Putinopoly, the medium is the message. Putin and his handlers have learned something very important from the West and the Soviet past - controlling the quality of political discourse means everything for someone in power. Putinopoly is post-structuralist in the sense that it is primarily interested in controlling the discourse and meaning of politics.

Putinopoly is not against a free media; it simply does not understand what it is and desperately requires that it mimic the Kremlin political line. Everything is allowed, expect what is forbidden. (Commentary on the Chechen War, for example, is definitely on the forbidden list.)

Putinopoly is also about protecting the leader at almost all costs, and it has a tendency to crowd out any real or potential competitors. The latest 'clean hands' operation to root out corrupt officials in the security forces (i.e., Putin's allies and protectors) was a pre-election message that the phrase 'dictatorship of law' still has some meaning. This ploy sacrificed a few of his own to indirectly promote the head of the Interior Ministry (and, interestingly enough, the head of the very pro- Kremlin party United Russia) Boris Gryzlov. Everyone in Russia knows how corrupt the security forces are, but everyone this writer knows is skeptical concerning the timing of the arrests. For the Kremlin, appearing to fight corruption is more important than really addressing this Russian cancer.

Putingarchy is ideologically indifferent, while Putinopoly is politically hesitant due to its interest in not publicly alienating any perceived political challenger. Putinopoly avoids conflict in public. Even the corrupt and unworthy are welcomed into the Kremlin if the proper public genuflections are performed. Former Governor of St. Petersburg Vladimir Yakovlev's acts of contrition when he joined the government are the most sterling example of Putin's desire to crush public displays of political differences among the elite. Honoring and respecting authority is at the heart of Putinopoly - and this has nothing to do with building a democratic Russia.

The best example of Putinopoly's distaste for politics in a normative sense is Putin's unwillingness to openly support a parliamentary democracy based on popular support. Time is running out for Putin and his Kremlin to support a party in the upcoming autumn Duma elections, and the presidential bloc is performing poorly in the polls.

Finally, Putinopoly is what "change" is really all about in Russia - that is, it is ersatz change. There is little doubt that the Kremlin has learned much from the handlers who spin-doctor the likes of Bush and Blair. The lesson learned is that peddling cheap populism is easier than facing up to hard facts.

I am the first to admit that the typologies of Putin's Russia presented above are only thumbnail sketches. They are not mutually exclusive either. Much more can and should be said about both. However, both positions take us beyond categories imported from the West. The West itself is changing at a breakneck speed, and it clearly has little right to define what is going on in Russia when it can't even get itself right. Assessing Russia on its own terms is a more meaningful approach.

Peter Lavelle.

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