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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Pursuit of the Power Vertical

APVladimir Putin, who had just been named acting president, accompanying Boris Yeltsin as he left the Kremlin on Dec. 31, 1999.
When Vladimir Putin became president four years ago, the Kremlin was largely impotent.

Defiant, often corrupt governors held seats in the Federation Council, which gave them heavy political weight, immunity from prosecution and the freedom to run their territories like fiefdoms.

Oligarchs ran swaths of the economy in similar fashion, while the Kremlin turned a blind eye, or, in some cases, winked, conferring perks like cars with government tags to the privileged few.

The nomenklatura, who were complicit in this merger of government and business, had grown antsy that they would be exposed once Boris Yeltsin left office, but after Putin's succession was assured, they had relaxed, feeling confident he would protect them.

All these characters were fair game, however, for NTV, which skewered them along with Putin on its popular weekly satire program, "Kukly." The feisty station, which had supported the Kremlin's opponents in the elections, was also unrelenting in its coverage of the Kremlin's bloody war in Chechnya.

One by one, Putin has brought them all into line with the power vertical. Today, Moscow keeps the governors on a short leash. "Kukly" and Chechnya are long gone from the airwaves, as is the independent incarnation of NTV. Oligarchs have seen their irreverence punished and their influence emasculated in a lesson to others, and Putin has purged Yeltsin-era powerbrokers and surrounded himself with his own, unwaveringly loyal team.

In four years, Putin has systematically concentrated power in his own hands and we've seen the weakening of every institution and actor apart from the Kremlin.

He claims noble motives, saying consolidation was necessary to assert the state's interests and steer the country back to greatness.

But critics, like Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, say Putin is limiting Russia's potential for greatness by crowding out the autonomous elements of civil society. Putin's chokehold on public life poses "a tremendous threat to the future of our country," he said in a recent interview.

Putin, however, doesn't see state control and vibrant society as mutually exclusive.

He counted the strengthening of "the vertical of executive power" among the key achievements of his first term in his Feb. 12 campaign speech at Moscow State University. He also rattled off all the right sentiments about the value of democracy, civil society and freedom of the press. Yet to all but devoted Putin partisans, the distance between words and reality seems significant.

What Putin seems to want is a democracy where he is not asked tough questions, a civil society that heeds his instructions, and a press that is "civilized" -- in other words, cooperative.

In fact, he seems to want everything around him to be cooperative. Unlike Yeltsin, who thrived on public battles, Putin dislikes confrontation to such an extent that much of his consolidation drive can be seen as a drive to root out anyone capable of confronting him.

"Putin has an insecurity complex. A very deep and profound one, which makes him hate people who may challenge his authority," Yevgeny Kiselyov, the editor of Moskovskiye Novosti, said in a recent interview.

The black and white mentality from Putin's days as a Cold War-era spy has stuck with him, that whoever is not with him is against him.

With friendly faces in the Kremlin press pool, he is so insulated from provocative questions that he reacts with knee-jerk anger in the rare event that he is challenged, memorably proposing, in November 2002, that a Le Monde reporter get a circumcision and join the Muslim extremists he asked about.

At his inauguration, on May 7, 2000, Putin looked ill at ease, intimidated by, and beholden to, the people who helped orchestrate his vault to power. As part of the deal when Yeltsin stepped aside, Putin had to promise to leave certain top officials in place for a year. No sooner had that year ended than he ousted several ministers.

In recent weeks, as proof his hands are no longer tied by his predecessor, he finished the job, replacing Mikhail Kasyanov, a prime minister who was not in his pocket, with Mikhail Fradkov, a prime minister who is. As with the Federation Council and State Duma, Putin now has a government that is under his full control.


For MT

When he first became president, Putin was often lampooned on NTV's "Kukly" show.

When Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, the Duma was still dominated by the Communists, who for much of the 1990s had blocked budgets and laws and even threatened Yeltsin with impeachment. By the time Putin became president, he had a supportive, but unstable, pro-presidential majority. By the end of his first term, he had control of the Duma locked down.

He has more than 300 United Russia foot soldiers ready to execute his legislative wishes, thanks to the cunning of political operatives who cut their teeth under Yeltsin, like former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and his protege Vladislav Surkov.

A subservient Federation Council was achieved earlier. Fresh off his May inauguration, Putin pushed through reforms that restructured the upper house, stripping governors of their seats and thus their clout in Moscow.

Now, in place of stubborn regional bosses in the Federation Council, there are pro-presidential senators, like the two from Tuva: Lyudmila Narusova, wife of the late former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin's first mentor, and Sergei Pugachyov, the head of Mezhprombank and an oligarch seen to be close to Putin.

He also moved to diminish governors' authority back home. For help, he called on the nebulous group of law enforcement and security services officials known collectively as the siloviki, to whose ranks Putin belongs.

Having issued a decree creating seven federal districts within a week of taking office, Putin dispatched seven envoys to tame regional budgets and unruly governors, like Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, who had spoken seriously of plans to introduce his own currency, the Urals franc, on the heels of the August 1998 financial crisis. Five of the envoys came from the ranks of the siloviki.

He dispatched prosecutors, another wing of the diverse siloviki group, to muscle regions into rewriting the constitutions in places like Bashkortostan, where President Murtaza Rakhimov had proclaimed his national republic to be a sovereign island within Russia, on par with -- not subject to -- Moscow.

The governors, including Rakhimov, grumbled at such treatment but were quick to read the political winds and began to toe the Kremlin line, at least superficially. Thirty of them lent their names and influence to United Russia's win last December.

Yet Putin took the opportunity of Rakhimov's reelection campaign in December to teach the authoritarian leader, whose outspoken criticism of the federal center had grown tiresome, a lesson in whose hand was heavier. The Kremlin backed a candidate who forced Rakhimov into a second round, a shock for someone accustomed to landslide victories. Ultimately some deal was struck, the Kremlin candidate dropped out at the last minute, and Rakhimov won.

Putin leveraged another problem governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, out of the Primorye region by offering him the top spot at the State Fisheries Committee, ironic since Nazdratenko had been known for awarding lucrative fishing licenses to his cronies, or pocketing them himself.

In theory, Putin could dismiss such governors by decree. Laws passed during his tenure give him this power, and although they are complicated and have not been tested, the threat hangs over governors' heads.

Putin also dangled that threat -- that laws could be used for political ends -- over uppity oligarchs.

In summer of 2000, Putin is said to have summoned oligarchs for a meeting, where he informed them of a new, unwritten rule. He would not question their questionably acquired empires if they would not question his exclusive right to political power. Businessmen needed to behave like businessmen, the message was, not like businessmen with political power, as they had become accustomed and the label oligarch was originally coined to connote.

This meeting signaled that time was running out for media magnates Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, as Putin's Kremlin had begun to equate television control with political control.

Berezovsky handed over his controlling stake in Channel One to the state without much of a fight shortly after he went into hiding in the West in late 2000, while the Kremlin's campaign against Gusinsky's channel was an 11-month war of attrition, packaged as a legal debt dispute, that ended with the takeover of NTV by state-run Gazprom.

"They're obsessed with television, they see it as the ultimate weapon. Probably they're right," said Kiselyov, who ran NTV before the takeover. He jumped first to TV6, then TVS in search of an independent home, and later moved to Moskovskiye Novosti after TVS was made a state sports channel.


Itar-Tass / Reuters

Putin addressing campaign supporters at Moscow State University on Feb. 12, 2004.

In Putin's most brazen move to assert his power, in 2003 he went after Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had, equally brazenly, challenged it.

The fate of Khodorkovsky, jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion, serves as a potent reminder to other ultra-wealthy businessmen that Putin requires unwavering loyalty.

When Putin spoke last month to a meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, known as the oligarchs' union, the businessmen "were afraid to stop applauding," Yavlinsky said.

It's easy to overestimate Putin's power.

He is not omnipotent. He has a puzzling inability to get rid of odious figures like Nazdratenko, who instead of being unceremoniously fired from the fisheries committee as an example of the Kremlin's commitment to fighting corruption was rewarded with a seat on the Security Council. Or Vladimir Yakovlev, Putin's nemesis from St. Petersburg who was given a Cabinet post last year to get him to give up the St. Petersburg governorship and Tuesday was moved to yet another post, as presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District.

Nor has the army of public servants been brought to bay. In emphasizing the state's central role, Putin has indirectly emphasized the bureaucracy -- precisely what he has vowed to cut back. His perch atop the power vertical creates the impression that he is involved in every decision, giving underlings the room to abuse their power in his name.

Yet he is far and away the country's most powerful public figure, and no one denies that his campaign to fortify his position has been remarkable for its efficiency.

But if power is cemented so far that it becomes a concrete block, it may prove to be not a blessing to Putin, but a curse. Without independent forces capable of pushing or pulling the country forward, all momentum must come from him.

In the absence of institutions and individuals that provide checks and balances on executive power, the country is left with little choice but to trust that Putin will act in their best interest.

He has given little indication that he will chart any brave new territory in his second term, so at least four more years of the status quo seems likely. And people seem content with that. After 13 years of tough transition, people are weary of upheaval and don't want to throw things up in the air all over again. Even many long-time Communist voters say they will vote for Putin on Sunday because they don't want change.

Once the election comfortably reinstalls Putin in the Kremlin, will he become less jealous of his power than he has been in his fight to the top of the political heap? Will he breathe a sigh of relief that the hard part is over and relax his grip, letting criticism from the margins roll off his back? Or will he steamroll the vestiges of opposition, like the newspapers that barely nip at his heels, into the pro-Kremlin camp? With power, as with money, it's human nature to want more, no matter how much you have.

So if all levers of state control are in Putin's hands, the single question becomes: Where will he lead? No one knows. In four years in office, Putin has shown himself to be predictable in his ability to be unpredictable.

Will he let the country sit and stagnate, or will he take us forward?