Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin’s “Direct Line”

On 20 June 2019, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, took part in the annual “Direct Line” television show. The concept is simple: Russians submit questions on a wide range of topics for Putin to answer during a live broadcast.

This was the seventeenth such TV event since Putin was elected to the presidency in 2000. During his time as prime minister, 2008-2012, the show was called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin” – and, not to be left out, President Medvedev had his own “Results of the Year with the President of Russia”.

Reporting on “Direct Line” is dominated by numbers – not only viewership figures (which were down this year), but also the number of questions submitted (more than 1.5 million by the morning of the broadcast), the number of questions answered (81), the percentage of Russians planning to keep an eye on the show (75%), as well as the length of the broadcast (four hours and eight minutes).

The Kremlin reported that Putin was preparing right up until he went on air. The dutiful, conscientious, hard-working president pored over documents to learn about the state of the federation – meticulous training for the marathon phone-in itself. That was the image to be conveyed: dedication and endurance. And Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much: “The hallmark of this entire chain [sic] is the president’s ability to answer direct questions for many hours”.

Beyond demonstrating knowledge of, and interest in, the state of the country, the show also provides an opportunity for Putin to address citizens’ grievances. “Direct Line” allows the “good Tsar” to correct the errors of lower-level officials and to improve the lot of everyday Russians. Putin promised, for instance, to raise salaries for firemen and to provide additional support for young families. One of the show’s hosts, Yelena Vinnik, even said that “[p]roblems end as soon as Direct Line starts”. The intended takeaway is clear: if only Putin himself were able to deal with all Russian citizens’ problems personally, all would be well.

Following Putin’s pronouncements on various topics, it’s the job of officials to put them into action. For example, the steering body of the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly – planned to meet on 24 June to discuss how to turn Putin’s statements into legislation. Similarly, Putin said that regional heads should take careful notice of the problems mentioned by citizens during the show and take steps to remedy them. Already, the governor of Murmansk has fired one of his deputies in response to a complaint made during “Direct Line”.

The problem, of course, with “hands-on management” is its basic inefficiency. One clear, unintended signal from the “Direct Line” shows, therefore, is that the current system of state management isn’t working. If everyday problems require intervention from the head of state to be resolved, then delegation chains and lines of responsibility are not functioning as they should. For those citizens who “win the lottery” of having their problem taken on by Putin, life might get a bit better for a short time, but the flipside is that the vast majority of people’s problems are not addressed directly. And, even if a flurry of laws are produced following the show, this is far from a guarantee that things will actually change for the better for ordinary Russians.

Why, then, does Putin continue with the show? “Direct Line” is an opportunity for the president to perform his “direct” connection with the Russian people. Who needs formal political institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures when people can talk directly with the head of state? In one widely reported moment, Putin was on the verge of tears recalling the time a woman fell to her knees, handing him a piece of paper with a problem noted on it. Putin promised to look into the issue she raised, but the note was lost by one of his assistants. According to this narrative, a lowly functionary messed up, but Putin felt personal responsibility.

Although modern-day Russia has an authoritarian political system, Putin’s genuine popularity is crucial to the durability of the regime. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of revolution from the streets – it also reduces the likelihood of a palace coup, as second-tier elites are less sure of a viable coalition against the leader. Putin’s popularity is, of course, partly engineered through denying the emergence of potential rivals, as well as other mechanisms, such as media control. But it’s the end state of popularity that matters for the Kremlin, less so the means of getting there.

And Putin is more conscious than ever of the importance of popularity – and trust. Since the introduction of a deeply unpopular pension reform in 2018, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped markedly. So too have his trust ratings – to the extent that the Kremlin put pressure on a polling agency to revise its methodology to produce a rosier picture of Putin. Even still, the latest figures show a declining trend. Events like “Direct Line” will be seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to stop this decline.

For all of the problems of this “tired format”, “routinized” show, “Direct Line” is here to stay – as long as Putin is around. Even though the president’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to deny accusations that questions purportedly from citizens were actually written by Russian special services personnel, to cancel the show would be too risky – interpreted as a sign that Putin can’t handle the preparation workload or that he is no longer interested in the concerns of Russian citizens.

Even in light of all of this, Peskov is, apparently, puzzled as to why European leaders haven’t copied the “Direct Line” format. The answer should be clear: in consolidated democracies, institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures provide the machinery for accountability and responsiveness between the people and officials, reducing the need for the type of executive magnanimity on display in “Direct Line”. The president’s public intervention on certain problems might seem like good PR, but this format only perpetuates a system of personalist rule that’s increasingly vexed by the question of life after Putin. What happens when Putin no longer picks up the phone?

Fabian Burkhardt – The Paradox of Presidential Power under Authoritarianism: Studying the Institutionalization of Russia’s Presidential Administration 1994 – 2012


This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen & German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

Rulers cannot rule alone. This simple wisdom is oftentimes forgotten with regard to Putin’s Russia. This blog post summarises a paper presented at the BASEES Annual Conference in Cambridge that attempts a systematic inquiry into the institutionalization of Russia’s ‘institutional presidency’ – the Presidential Administration – between 1994 and 2012. It argues that partial institutionalization over time contributed to an increase in presidential administrative power. But as personalism and proceduralism coexist, presidents remained weak and debilitated at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office (left) | photo via Kremlin.ru

The U.S.-American presidency remains the best-studied example of a presidential administration to date. After early presidents still had to hire staff out of their own pocket, Congress finally granted funds – albeit only for a single clerk. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939, the White House staff has steadily  grown into a fully-fledged bureaucratic organization. In the U.S. literature on the ‘institutional presidency’ – the process of staff growth, functional specialization, increasing complexity and routinized patterns of organizing work – is referred to as ‘institutionalization’ and usually contrasted to Neustadt’s seminal, but president-centered, personalized perspective on presidential power. We know quite a lot about the complexity, centralization, politicization and unilateralism of the U.S. ‘institutional presidency’, but not very much about ‘presidential centers’ elsewhere. Particularly for post-Soviet countries, and the Russian Federation more specifically, much remains to be explored. This can be partly ascribed to a lack of readily available data, yet this is also predicated on the tendency to focus on executive-legislative relations on the one hand, and a president-centered leadership bias on the other. Moreover, Russia scholars have made numerous contributions to the ‘Institutions under Authoritarianism’ literature, but so far they limited themselves to the legislature, parties, elections, or center-region-relations.

My research aims to open up the black box of an “institutional presidency” under authoritarianism: I analyze the ‘institutionalization’ of ‘the Kremlin’ – or more precisely the Presidential Administration (PA) – by taking a longitudinal view from 1994 until 2012, a period which spans the three presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and ten chiefs of staff. This strategy was chosen, among others, to investigate in how far core characteristics of the PA survive turnover of presidents and chiefs of staffs. To do this I applied a framework that was initially developed by Samuel Huntington who understood institutionalization as an “increasingly stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”, and which was later applied to the U.S. and Latin American ‘institutional presidencies’ (Table 1).

Scholars have attested a high degree of personalism to Russian governance both in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s the PA defied “traditional categories of organizational analysis” as it mixed “hierarchical bureaucracy” and a “loose confederation of offices” (Huskey 2016). Furthermore, Yeltsin’s approach to organizing advice in the administration “was individualized, anti-procedural, and anti-institutional” (Breslauer 2008). In the 2000s, a high degree of regime personalization, neopatrimonialism and patronal politics should also present a major obstacle to institutionalization. However, if we follow the logic of the literature on stable authoritarian regimes, one would expect that autocrats strive to reduce uncertainty of future outcomes by means of stable patterns recurring over time. Huskey sees the Russia of the 2000s as a technocratic authoritarian regime with an ever increasing “bureaucratization of politics”, hence concomitant to the party system or executive-legislative relations one should also expect a certain degree of institutionalization in the PA.

My research shows that, unsurprisingly, both proceduralism and personalism persisted, but their proportion changed over time. In my view, a strong case can be made for at least a partial institutionalization of the PA, mostly thanks to an increased autonomy, regularized procedures and more stable structures in the adaptability and complexity indicators.

With regard to autonomy, a tendency towards a “progressive independence of the executive power” (Schmitter 1976). This can be illustrated by the swelling of the PA’s share of the annual state budget in comparison to other state organs. While in 1994, both the PA and the Duma’s share were comparable at about 0.1 percent, by 2012 the share of the PA grew to around 0.7 percent while the Duma’s was more than 17 times smaller (0.04%). Until 1999 the difference was not that large, yet the years 1999 – 2003 marked a transition period which suggests that the rise of United Russia as a dominant party played a significant role in this.

Recruitment patterns of PA staff were used as a second indicator to find out whether staff was hired and promoted from the outside of the PA, or by means of a more closed hiring system from the inside. The challenge was to choose a category of staff that existed for the whole period of investigation. Therefore, I collected a complete data set of all presidential representatives in Russia’s regions for 1991 and 1999 and Main Federal Inspectors (MFI), who after the 2000 federalism reform fulfilled approximately the same task.

Figure 1 shows that until 1999 Federal Representatives were almost exclusively recruited from outside the PA, most frequently with a background from the federal parliament, or regional executives or legislatures. However, by 2004 more than one third of MFI boasted experience within the PA apparatus of federal representatives before they were promoted to this position.

For the adaptability indicator, a complete set of all units of the PA was compiled with information on their duration of survival over time.

Among the 100 units in the set, only seven “core units” survived for the whole period of investigation. Overall, I find that in the 1990s almost four times as many units were created as in the 2000s, after Putin came to power the units survived on average twice as long as under Yeltsin. Also, electoral cycles, and with them the rotation of chiefs of staff in proximity to elections, became crucial for the survival of units.

For complexity and functional specialization, organigrams were collected from various sources such as archives, presidential decrees and media. These schemes give an idea how structure “shapes the kind, caliber, and amount of information presidents receive on policy matters”. Figure 3 provides just one example to illustrate the approach: 1996 three parallel hierarchies existed within the administration: The Service of Aides (upper left), the security pillar which includes the Security Council (upper right) as well as the general management pillar subordinate directly to the chief of staff (lower middle).

The legendary Service of Aides was soon to abolished and never to be revived, among others because of the competing hierarchy and direct information channel it created paralleling the one of the chief of staff. Overall, it can be posited that at the latest by 1998 a consolidated structure was achieved by excluding some major units that had made the organization exceedingly complex. After that time, merging and adding new smaller units by layering were the main strategies of “institutional gardening” applied.

And finally, coherence refers to unity and consensus, and is operationalized as rule-following and compliance. For this purpose, I compiled annual implementation rates of presidential orders (Porucheniia Prezidenta) from internal statistics of the PA’s own Monitoring Department. Stunningly, for the 2000s only between 40 and 60 percent of presidential orders were implemented by the addressees of these orders. In other words executive actors oftentimes resist Putin’s policy initiatives. While even in Western democracies it cannot be assumed that unilateral executive acts are self-enforcing, in Russia this can be explained by bad governance and “debilitated dirigisme”: the “failure of an activist state”, or in this case an activist president, to control its supposedly subordinate agents.

So where does this leave us? In his seminal work on authoritarian Chile Pablo Policzer remarked that “rulers cannot rule alone”. This might sound a bit simplistic at first glance, but is highly relevant for Russia. Presidents – be it Yeltsin, Putin or Medvedev – were only as powerful as their administrations allowed them to be. Especially Vladimir Putin who is oftentimes portrayed as seemingly omnipotent oftentimes winds up being impotent after all, in particular when other actors need to be empowered to get things done. Due to a partial institutionalization of the PA, the ‘power over’ – its organizational and coercive aspects – increased, but not the ‘power to’, the ability to govern proactively.

Fabian Burkhardt is completing his PhD entitled “Presidential power and institutional change: A study on the presidency of the Russian Federation” at the University of Bremen’s Research Centre for East European Studies. He is a member of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Munich. Currently, he is also a fellow at the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. More information about his research can be found here (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/FabianBurkhardt). He tweets @fa_burkhardt.