Vladimir Putin's Vertical State and the Embryo of a Horizontal Opposition

Article excerpt

The victory of acting president Vladimir Putin in the first round of the March 2000 Russian presidential election has confirmed Russia's trend of noncompetitive electoral politics. The concentration of financial and media resources in the hands of the Presidential Administration led to the election of its co-opted candidate and consolidated the elite group in power.(1) With the noticeable exception of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most, all of Russia's financial and industrial groups backed Boris Yeltsin's heir. For most of the ruling elite's representatives, the mason for backing Putin was that he was the only candidate capable of implementing another breakthrough reform strategy. In that respect, Russia's ruling elite agreed with the idea of maintaining a liberalization policy without implementing genuine democratization.

Over the transition period, elite groups, or clans, have become institutions of their own in Russia.(2) They gravitate around power centers such as the Presidential Administration (the Kremlin), the federal government, the Moscow city government, and regional governors. They shape Russia's political landscape by funding certain political[ parties or charismatic leaders. Both Western and Russian journalists and scholars have extensively described Russia's informal elite groups, showing that it is these groups, rather than democratic institutions, that exert real influence on the state decision-making process.(3) One of the most recent illustrations of the influence of these clans and their struggle for power was the December 1999 legislative campaign, when Russia's financial-industrial magnates and regional leaders were separated into two competing groups behind the Kremlin administration and the Moscow city government.(4) Eventually, the winners were the financial-industrial groups that had the largest media and cash resources, not those who were the most politically articulate. The winning political party, Unity, which was created only eight weeks before the election with the backing of the Presidential Administration, never publicized a coherent political program.

By focusing on individuals rather than on political agendas, the March 2000 presidential campaign was no different than the December 1999 Duma race. The leading contender, Putin, set the tone by announcing that he would not disclose his electoral program before the poll. As Putin systematically turned down other candidates' offers to publicly debate on television, his campaign reached a climax with the publication of a book in the form of a lengthy interview,(5) whose purpose was to highlight Putin's main character traits: toughness, bravery, and single-mindedness. By campaigning in this manner, the Kremlin created an atmosphere in which money and symbolism replaced genuine political exchange.

In their struggle for power, financial-industrial groups have little concern for the fundamental political issues. They rely on short-term tactics, such as publishing materials that compromise their political rivals and maintain the oligarchic nature of the regime. Their ultimate goal is to establish for themselves a patron-client relationship with the Kremlin or the regional governors rather than to eradicate patronage as a system. Despite their struggle for power, members of these groups share a vertical and paternalistic understanding of the state. No wonder, then, that Putin has repeatedly stressed that what his country needs most is a "paternalistic leader" and a "vertical state" in which discipline predominates.(6)

One of the issues raised during the campaign was whether the strengthening of the state would lead the country to security or to autocracy. A few days after the presidential election, Alfa Group head Pyotr Aven suggested that President-elect Putin should resort to dictatorial measures to push through economic reforms. "The only way ahead is for fast liberal reforms, building public support for that path, but also using totalitarian force to achieve that," Aven said in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian. …