Research: Putin’s power is wielded through a network of repressive social controls

Even though the Russian president appears to be increasingly isolated, it would be impossible for him to run the country alone, as Françoise Daucé, a specialist on governmental-societal relations in Russia, points out. The expert, who heads the CERCEC laboratory, describes how in the past decade Vladimir Putin has established a power base spanning every component of his country’s society.

Putin is described as an isolated leader, making all of his decisions by himself. What do we actually know about the mechanisms of power at the Kremlin?
Françoise Daucé:
 The Russian president has gradually established a power system that is increasingly coercive and centralised, even though it relies on a decentralised network of controls over society. This could seem paradoxical, but it means that coercion is dispersed, delegated to different parties in a wide variety of fields. To mention two examples that I’m quite familiar with, there is first of all the Ministry of Justice, which registers non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as ‘foreign agents’. This led to the dissolution, on 28 December last year, of Memorial, an NGO devoted to upholding human rights and the memory of the victims of Stalinism.

Secondly, in the media and Internet sectors, there is an administration called Roskomnadzor that monitors communication. All of these oversight bodies can be mobilised as needed to implement policies instigated by the central federal government. Further examples could be cited in the fields of research, education, culture, etc.

So in your opinion, the image of the lone, solitary dictator is not realistic…
F. D.: Obviously, Putin is not alone at the helm – we must keep this in mind. He relies on a whole set of networks, and social control mechanisms. In such a huge country, power necessarily has to be wielded through local relays – in Russia’s case the regional governors, mayors of large cities and local administrations. And these local and regional authorities have sometimes proved to be overzealous in relation to the central power, anticipating the will and decisions of the Moscow government.

How does the central power control its relays?
F. D.: 
Since Putin came to power in the Kremlin, all local and regional elections have been closely supervised. The governors and mayors owe their position to the central government’s decisions, and are therefore bound to loyalty. The same principle applies for the local administrations overseeing specific aspects in different sectors of society. I must add that there are no institutional checks and balances to the central power.

All political opposition forces have been gradually eliminated from the Duma (parliament) since 2003. Liberal and democrat activists have been expelled as members of a so-called “non-system” opposition. The emergence of critical movements, like the one headed by Alexei Navalny, was initially tolerated under supervision, before organisations such as Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – banned for being ‘extremist’ – were totally dismantled.

When did the central power begin to gradually increase its control?
F. D.: 
Control over the public space gained momentum from 2011 and 2012, following the massive demonstrations against electoral fraud and Putin’s return to the presidency, after the sleight of hand with Medvedev. (President and prime minister respectively, they traded positions for one legislative term in order to circumvent the constitutional limit of two successive presidential terms. An arsenal of repressive legislation was adopted to silence critical voices in Russian society (NGOs, journalists, local militants, political activists). The Russian administration became increasingly insular, to the point that it became impossible for researchers to conduct information surveys of its representatives and official departments.

Concretely, what does the central power encompass today?
F. D.: It is very difficult to answer this question because we know so little about the decision-making mechanisms at the highest level of the Russian state. In fact, this is one of the reasons why it is so complicated to negotiate with those in power. What we do know is that decisions are made by the presidential administration, according to the official designation of the team closest to Putin – as distinguished from the government, in charge of economic and social issues. Putin has brought together a circle of leaders, more or less equivalent to the Security Council. On 21st February this year, he staged an astonishing video in which he asked each Security Council member to make a statement on the independence of the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist zones of the Donbas (a Russian-speaking region of eastern Ukraine), where a conflict broke out in 2014 after the pro-European Maidan Revolution.
As it happens, the Council is mostly made up of officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence and the security services. This set-up suggests a highly personal exercise of power, echoing the posture of the Czar summoning his boyars, or the strongmen of the Soviet era, Stalin in particular.

Does this mean that the attack on Ukraine was Putin’s sole decision?
F. D.: We really don’t have enough sources to confirm that. The rare testimonies from high officials in the state apparatus that were reported by the independent media outlet Agenstvo, now banned in Russia, provide a few hints. These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, were obviously surprised by the scope of the military attack. Most of them, they explain, thought that Russia would indeed recognise the autonomous republics of the Donbas, but that things would go no further. They also express their bewilderment at the deployment of troops throughout Ukraine, all the way to Kyiv. But this information is too fragmentary to understand what is going on within the presidential administration.

What do we know about Putin’s relations with the Russian army?
F. D.: Here again, everything is opaque, except for the much-publicised close relation between President Putin and his Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, who take every opportunity to show their unity. In the 1990s I was working on military issues and investigated the evolution of the Soviet legacy in the new Russia. At the time it was still possible to do research, and even to meet with officials, which is completely impossible today. One of our few remaining sources comes from the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, who were very active in the 1990s seeking to defend their sons against the dangers of military service, in the context of the Chechen War. Today they are once again making their voices heard, protesting against the deployment of conscripts to the front in Ukraine.

Do economic sanctions pose a threat to the regime?
F. D.: It is too early to tell, but they could have a number of effects. They could cause a kind of holy alliance behind President Putin, with a population that sees itself as victim of Western aggression. Another possibility is that sanctions could foster discontent and critical thinking, causing a rift between a part of the population and the central power. They could also trigger the emergence of forms of adaptation to the difficulties of everyday life, and methods for overcoming them, exclusive of any political engagement. Most likely, each of these three scenarios will take place to some extent.

But doesn’t Putin run the risk of being abandoned by the economic elite?
F. D.: That would depend on how that elite came into being. With the large fortunes that have been amassed in the past few years, it’s a job to know how much is ‘honest’ wealth and how much is corruption. And the very practice of corruption – misappropriation of public funds, offshore investments, tax evasion, etc. – is another leverage point for wielding authoritarian power, in the sense that it makes political criticism very difficult, if not impossible. As with the high-ranking government officials, it creates inescapable bonds of loyalty.

What role does opinion play in this context?
F. D.: It is always complicated to define its contours, but in practice the Putin regime makes a constant effort to control opinion and build popular support for its leaders. It is very hard for Russian citizens to express dissent, although some critical voices have been raised and attempts at demonstrations have been made, showing remarkable courage. There are also online petitions, coming from a wide variety of sources, in opposition to the conflict. One of them has gathered a million signatures, which is considerable – all the more so in a country that exerts tremendous pressure on freedom of expression: virtually all independent media are now banned. (A journalist using the words “war” or “invasion” to describe the conflict in Ukraine can be sentenced to as much as 15 years in prison.)

How are we to understand the rhetoric used by the Kremlin?
F. D.: The central administration is currently using a dual rhetoric. First of all, there is the widespread use of a vocabulary borrowed indiscriminately from the Great Patriotic War, the Russian term for World War II. It likens the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian government to the Nazis, instrumentalising the darkest days of the Second World War.
In the official media, the Maidan Revolution of 2014 was already presented as a takeover by Nazis, as a means of discrediting the new Ukrainian authorities who wanted to build closer ties with European institutions and distance themselves from Russia. A second element of this rhetoric is the depiction of the central power as the defender of the weak, oppressed citizens of Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics of the Donbas. Taking on the cloak of humanitarianism, it asserts that the Russian army is there to save women and children from their purportedly brutal treatment by the Ukrainian army.

What consequences could the conflict have on Russia’s political agenda?
F. D.: This is clearly a turning point, and it will be decisive. It could lead to even greater entrenchment by those in power and ever more severe restrictions on the population. But a Russian military defeat in Ukraine could also shake up the political balance in Moscow, foreshadowing a shift of power. Both outcomes are possible.

For further reading – L’Âge Soviétique. Une traversée de l’empire russe au monde postsoviétique (The Soviet Age. A journey from the Russian Empire to the post-Soviet world), A. Blum, F. Daucé; M. Elie, I. Ohayon, Armand Colin, Oct. 2021, 432 p. – “La Russie Postsoviétique” (“Post-Soviet Russia”), F. Daucé, La Découverte, “Repères” collection, 2019, 128 p.


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