Tag Archives: Putin

Russia – Inviting Voice without Accepting Accountability: Putin’s Search for Alternative Sources of Legitimation

Electoral success in competitive authoritarian regimes poses a conundrum for political leaders. The less competitive the election, the more likely it is to prompt a backlash, witness the color revolutions in the post-communist world in the 2000s. In the case of Russia, the fear of a popular rebellion led to restrictions on NGOs, especially those with foreign ties, and to a greater reliance on institutions that project an aura of popular accountability without actually restraining political power. In other words, as the legitimating potential of traditional liberal institutions, such as elections, parties, and parliaments, fades, the regime seeks substitutes in alternative organizations and rituals that can buttress leadership claims of responsiveness to the public.[i]

Insisting that existing NGOs were unrepresentative of Russian society, Putin established the system of Public Chambers [Obshchestvennye palaty] in April 2005, shortly after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as a state-sanctioned alternative to traditional liberal institutions. Filled for the most part with pro-regime experts and dignitaries, the organization has acquired more responsibilities in recent years and is now a quasi-parliament, a quarter of whose members are elected through an internet poll.[ii] The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation sits atop a network of regional chambers and affiliated public councils that monitor the activities of executive agencies.[iii] Although it is tempting to write off this Russian experiment in horizontal accountability as yet another example of “virtual politics,”[iv] it does provide opportunities for feedback, especially from those whose concerns about specific policies and organizations do not spring from a general critique of the regime.

Besides organizations like the Public Chambers, Putin has introduced or enhanced other institutions that seek to illustrate the President’s attentiveness and accessibility to citizens. Perhaps the most ambitious and risky of these efforts is the prime-time call-in show entitled Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Instead of regularly receiving supplicants at Court, like traditional rulers, Russia’s republican monarch of the digital age makes himself available periodically to the nation in a marathon television broadcast in which he answers questions posed by text, email, letters, Skype, and by anchors and selected members of the studio audience. Over the years Putin has developed a mastery of this form of communication, alternating between stern statements directed at the country’s enemies to wonkish discussions of obscure areas of public policy and humorous banter with questioners.

Although the event is carefully scripted, the live format gives the program an edge, which is heightened by the willingness of the organizers to allow the occasional critique of Putin’s leadership. For example, at the last Direct Line, in April 2015, a member of the studio audience, Aleksei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister, asked Putin why GDP growth in his first term [2000-2004] had been almost 7 percent annually, when the price of oil averaged $30 a barrel, whereas it was only 1.5 percent in his current term [2012-present], with oil between $65 and $70 a barrel.[v] The rare uncomfortable moments like these only heighten the program’s authenticity and popularity, and one suspects that most of the massive audience that tunes in would agree with Putin’s assessment, made at the end of the 2015 version of the show, that the almost four-hour event, with no breaks, was “the most powerful public opinion poll…which allows us to understand what people are really concerned about….”[vi]

Between these episodic high-profile encounters with the nation, Putin receives a constant stream of letters and email messages from citizens, who also have the option of visiting in person presidential reception centers [priemnye] in Moscow and the regions to communicate their concerns. Receiving, analyzing, and following through on these requests and complaints of Russian citizens is the job of the presidency’s Department for Work with Communications from Citizens and Organizations [Upravlenie po rabote s obrashcheniiami grazhdan i organizatsii]. Continuing a tradition of the “complaint bureaucracy” that had formed part of the tsarist and communist regimes,[vii] the presidential Department for Work with Communications has in recent years devoted more resources to tracking complaints through officialdom and analyzing and presenting graphically this store of governmental data. This year the Department is on track to process more than a million requests and complaints from citizens and social groups.[viii]

Accessible on the presidential website, the monthly and annual reports provide a treasure trove of information about the concerns of Russian citizens, which are broken down by policy area and by the region of the sender.[ix] The changing focus of citizen concerns is evident in these materials, witness the 32 percent month-on-month increase from August 2014 to August 2015 in the number of communications relating to the economy, which has produced considerable anxiety of late because of the effects of Western sanctions and the declining oil price. There was an even greater percentage decrease in the number of requests and complaints relating to the State/Society/Politics rubric, reflecting perhaps greater popular resignation about the shape of the political order amid the further consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his team.

Whether directed to the President’s complaints office or parallel institutions in agencies like the Procuracy, these messages–a quintessential form of individual political action–serve as a barometer of the public mood and represent a low-cost, low-risk way of exhibiting openness to public voice while avoiding the dangers to the regime of collective political action. It is unclear, however, how responsive political leaders are in competitive authoritarian regimes to the signals received through these alternatives to liberal institutions. It is also difficult to assess how effective such alternatives are with the public as substitutes for the traditional means of legitimation found in democratic countries. Inviting voice without accepting accountability may be difficult to sustain as a long-term strategy in the absence of levels of repression and information control that are higher than those in place at the moment in Russia and other competitive authoritarian regimes.

[i] Among Russian political institutions, parties and parliament inspire little confidence among the public. A poll conducted in late 2013 found that whereas the President, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the army were trusted by 55, 48, and 43 percent of the population, respectively, the figures for the parliament and political parties were 25 and 12 percent. Doverie institutam vlasti, Levada-Tsentr, 7 October 2013. http://www.levada.ru/07-10-2013/doverie-institutam-vlasti

[ii] The Russian president selects another quarter of the members and regional Public Chambers select half of the body.

[iii] A similar, though more robust, network of public monitoring boards has functioned in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. See Eugene Huskey, “Public Advisory Boards in Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian Experiment with Horizontal Accountability,” IREX Scholar Research Brief, August 2013. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/EPS%20Scholar%20Research%20Brief%20Huskey.pdf

[iv] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Communist World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[v] Priamaia liniia s Vladimirom Putinym (15 aprelia 2015), at 32:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhHtS4oVst8

[vi] Ibid., at 3:57:00. For an assessment of this program as political and discursive performance, see Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The discourse of a spectacle at the end of the presidential term,” in Helena Goscilo (ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 104-110.

[vii] There is a rich literature on citizen complaints in Russia; see, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s,” Slavic Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 78-105. Studies of the contemporary complaint bureaucracy include Laura A. Henry, “Complaint-Making as Political Participation in Contemporary Russia,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 45, nos. 3-4 (September-December 2012), pp. 243-254; Danielle N. Lussier, “Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 3 (July-September 2011), pp. 289-325; and Joshua Solomon, Citizen-State Relations in Hybrid Regimes: The Case of the Correspondence Directorate of the Russian Presidency, Senior Thesis, Stetson University, May 2013.

[viii] Informatsionno-statisticheskii obzor rasmotrennykh v avguste 2015 goda obrashchenii grazhdan, organizatsii i obshchestvennykh ob’edinenii, adresovannykh Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, p. 20. http://letters.kremlin.ru/media/letters/digests/41d57b5db0d596e13201.pdf

[ix] Complaints and questions from citizens are categorized into five major policy areas–State, Society, Politics; Social Sphere; Economics; Defense, Security, Legality; Housing Sphere–and each of these is disaggregated further into five sub-categories. Maps, graphs, and pie charts abound in these lengthy reports; the August 2015 monthly report, for example, was over 100 pages. Ibid.Put

Putin – The Perks and Perils of Sochi

Guest post by Anna Fruhstorfer, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Since the establishment of the constitution for the Russian Federation in 1993, 3 presidents have served in this office: Boris Yeltsin (1991/1993-1999), Vladimir Putin (2000-2008, and since 2012) and Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012). With its presidents, the Russian Federation went from Yeltsin’s super-presidentialism era to a form of “bureaucratic authoritarianism”(1) under Medvedev and Putin. The short overview that this post provides, presents the picture of a constitutionally powerful presidential institution supporting a bureaucratic elite. The Olympic Games in Sochi serve as one example how this group legitimizes personalized and hyper-centralized power(2), but also how this might destabilize the established power construct.

Presidents of the Russian Federation are directly elected for 6 years and hold a variety of competences(3): According to Article 83 (a) of the Russian constitution the president is responsible for the appointment of the Head of Government (with the consent of the Duma) as well as (c) the adoption of the resignation of the Government. As further stipulated, the president chairs cabinet sessions (Article 83.b.), has the power to repeal governmental decisions if they are in conflict with the constitution, federal laws or his own decrees (Article 85), and has the right to initiate laws (Art. 104) and exercise a suspensory legislative veto, which can only be overruled by a 2/3 majority in both chambers (Article 107). In addition, he is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (Article 87).

With this broad constitutional basis, the establishment of Putin and Medvedev’s “bureaucratic authoritarianism”(4) allowed “bureaucrat oligarchs”(5) to be favored for access to all political institutions. For both Putin and this broad group of economic and political elites bread and circuses, like the Olympic Games in Sochi, divert attention from internal problems. Following the basic Olympic principle of “faster, higher, stronger”(6), the establishment of the Olympic sites in and around Sochi was a presidential and executive administrative and political effort: Two examples form the basis for this argument: the structure of Olympstroy and the Federal Law No. 310.

The basis for a centralized handling of the Olympic infrastructure and its intended course was a Federal Law (No. 310) on the organization and execution of the XXII Olympic Games and the XI Paralympic Games(7). Legitimizing the president to limit – if need be – constitutionally assigned fundamental rights(8) by enhancing “security measures for the period of the holding of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games”(9) is an indication of both a highly personalized power construct and a concentration of power over the Olympic Games in the president’s hands.

This centralized power was mainly executed by Olympstroy (Олимпстрой), a corporation run by “bureaucrat oligarchs”(10), with both public and private organizational elements. Its main competences pertain to construction work on the Olympic sites and procedures of expropriation.(11) Without a clear control mechanism (neither a parliamentary control nor the supervisory board proved sufficient in controlling this mixed structure of public and private organization) the Russian state does not find itself in a win-win situation. Both the legal and organizational risks involved in the organization of the Olympic games are carried by the state. Additionally, the Russian Federal State and the region Krasnodar (including non-private investors) paid the highest share of the expenses either by means of direct investments or high-risk soft loans to investors. In addition to this risk-cost benefit for investors, the most important construction projects (e.g. the railroad construction connecting the city with the Olympic sites) were contracted to a close-knit group of bureaucratic oligarchs close to the Russian President.(12)

This overview has some important implications for an argument about the role of the Russian president: Organizing the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi (located near the North Caucasus) was a centralized effort made by a bureaucratic elite in collaboration with and around Putin. This elite profited enormously from this endeavor. However, ultimately only the Russian President, being the representative of the Russian Federation, may become liable for the explosion of government expenses after the festivities or an out-of-control security situation.

[1] See Shevtsova, Lilia (2004). The limits of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, 15.3: 67-77.

[2] See Shevtsova, Lilia (2009). The return of personalized power. Journal of Democracy, 20.2: 61-65.

[3] http://eng.constitution.kremlin.ru/ (accessed February 6, 2014); Rossiiskaja Gazeta January 21, 2009, publication of the federal constitutional law 6-7 on the constitutional amendment: http://www.rg.ru/2009/01/21/konstitucia-dok.html (accessed February 2014)

[4] See Shevtsova, Lilia (2004). The limits of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, 15.3: 67-77.

[5] Shevtsova, Lilia (2009). The return of personalized power. Journal of Democracy, 20.2: 61.

[6] http://registration.olympic.org/en/faq/detail/id/29 (accessed February 1, 2014)

[7] Federal law: On the Organization and Holding of the ХХII Olympic Winter Games and the XI Paralympic Winter Games 2014 in Sochi CITY, the Development of Sochi CITY as a Mountain Climate Resort and the Amendment of Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation.

[8] Levin, Ilya (2014): Olympische Winterspiele in Soci. Staatlich-private Bewältigung eines Mega-Projekts in einem reichen Staat, p. 60

[9] http://www.sc-os.ru/en/about/standdoc/index.php?id_101=428 (accessed February 6, 2014)

[10] Shevtsova, Lilia (2009). The return of personalized power. Journal of Democracy, 20.2: 61.

[11] See Levin, Ilya (2014): Olympische Winterspiele in Soci. Staatlich-private Bewältigung eines Mega-Projekts in einem reichen Staat, p. 86

[12] For an overview see for example http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21581764-most-expensive-olympic-games-history-offer-rich-pickings-select-few-castles (accessed February 6, 2014)

Anna Fruhstorfer is a PhD candidate at Humboldt University Berlin and works at the Department of Social Sciences as researcher and lecturer. Since 2010 she is also a researcher for the Comparative Constitutions Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Her main area of research is Comparative Politics, with a regional emphasis in Eastern Europe. Her PhD project concentrates on the influence of constitutions on presidential power in non-presidential systems.