Response to Robert Coalson at RFE/RL

Robert Coalson at RFE/RL has been so kind to devote a post on his blog the 'Power Vertical'to a comment I left there. My response to his response contains double the amount of characters a blog comment allows, so i decided to copy-paste it here and link to this website from their comment section.

Dear Robert Coalson,

I am delighted to hear my comments sent you on a voyage of discovery. Please consider the below comment a well intended continuation of a conversation.

Let me first return to the initial post that prompted our exchange of opinions. There you wrote that you “think some sort of “thawing” is taking place (not a liberalization, but a kind of reorientation as factions within the ruling elite compete for a dwindling pool of resources).” Whether such a reorientation of factions can be described as a liberalization, I will leave to the historians.

I was drawn to this sentence because I like the framework of competing factions to explain developments in Russian politics. Honestly said, I had hoped and still hope that this aspect of our conversation is to be the one to set you on a voyage of discovery, but it did not and so be it.

To be clear with these factions I do not mean the so called liberal and silovik towers in the Kremlin, but something I would refer to as stakeholders in the company called Russia; these can indeed be the various siloviye and economic ministries and state organs, but also big business, the SME lobby, the juridical corpus, civil society representatives, governors, political parties, middle class, pensioners etc.. With every new president the relations between the center and these various stakeholders acquire new meaning. These are therefore interesting times for us ‘russiawatchers’.

I mention this because even though ‘the power vertical’ is the right concept to explain major tendencies within Putin’s two presidencies,‘the power vertical’ is a too limited concept to explain the full scope of developments taking place inside Russia. I may interpret you wrong, but for me the term suggests the image from a cold war movie with a soviet desk with some twenty telephones, from which orders are given to amongst others party representatives (in our times multiple parties), history teachers and pollsters.

Modern Russia’s society - I am convinced -is much too open and diverse for such control to be effective. This is most likely the crux of our conflicting opinions. Your professional affiliation with Russia originates in the Cold War, while I visited Russia for the first time in 2000. For you – it seems - modern Russia has (still) to prove it is different country from the Soviet Union. For me, you will have to prove that modern Russia is indeed as totalitarian as you suggest it is. As people who stand for freedom and pluralism of opinion, let us say our opinions should strive to be complementary.

Let us get concrete and talk about VTsIOM. The right approach to prove your alleged VTsIOM subordinance to the Power Vertical either trough Surkov’s office or the United Russia office is to point at differences in polling results between VTsIOM and other polling agencies. I still challenge you to find such examples.

The post that sparked this conversation mentioned differences in interpretation. ‘VTsIOM General Director Valery Fyodorov told RFE/RL that “a process of adapting to the crisis is under way,” while Levada Center researcher Natalya Bondarenko concluded that “the growth of pessimism” has slowed in Russia, but there is no increase in optimism about the crisis.

To be clear, this is no example of conflicting results, but one of conflicting interpretations. We will both welcome differences of interpretation as a sign of pluralism of thought, but I assume that you have interpreted this difference of interpretation as a sign VTsIOM has been given orders through the Power Vertical to make positive interpretations.

I was not entirely convinced this is the case. I could also imagine that it could be VTsIOM’s own policy to look for positive signs in these hard times. One could call such a policy ‘social responsible’, perhaps overdone, perhaps discussed with people in politics, but not necessarily the result of orders coming top down through the power vertical.

In you most recent blogpost you bring forth additional arguments for VTsIOM’s subordinance to the Power Vertical. I am not really sure what you wish to explain with the list of the companies partners. Yes, the large majority consists of entities, you might refer to as pro-Kremlin. I think that is a logical state of affairs in a country in which the majority of the people think it unwise to touch upon the current division of power and property symbolized by the Kremlin, but then again you consider Putin’s popularity to be a myth. As I most likely cannot convince you otherwise by citing the polls conducted for years by various polling agencies, I’d rather not attempt to do so.

The Morar piece you cite refers to periodic coordination about the survey questions between the VTsIOM director and Chesnakov, who worked in Surkov’s office at the time. Well, when the Presidential Administration, listed as VTsIOM client on their website - is commissioning these surveys, it has every right to coordinate the questions and read the press release before it goes public.

I can understand you find it unfortunate that it is the PA that is commissioning these weekly political surveys. I agree, but can you tell me who then is qualified to commission such polls or what type of funding for such polls you find appropriately independent?

So the PA has had opportunity and perhaps even the motive to cook the polls it commissioned, but why then don’t we see flagrant discrepancies with non state commissioned polls? Why do VTsIOM polls for example show that sympathies for Stalin have dropped between 2005 and 2008 from 50% to 28% and that preference for a Stalin type of leader declined from 42% in 2005 to 18% in 2008?

What is it? Is the ‘Kremlin’ actively promoting a positive image of Stalin? Or is VTsIOM an instrument of Kremlin policy? Please decide. You cannot have it both ways.

Moreover, it might be comforting for you to know that Chesnakov was fired in March 2008; according to Kommersant sources because Surkov thought the United Russia campaign and work style in general too aggressive.

Conclusively, there are certainly connections between the PA and VTsIOM, but calling it ‘a quasi-state agency’ and ‘virtually a wing of the ruling United Russia party’ is a bit over the top for me. But then I again I can understand that with your background you require VTsIOM to prove its innocence, while I with my background I want to verify your assumption of guilt.

Similarly I cannot agree with your assumptions of a pervasive control over the party system and civil society from out of Surkov’s office. I will not dispute that Surkov’s position is immensely influential. We know the Public Chamber overseeing the distribution of grants to the NGO sector consists of people directly and indirectly appointed by the president. We know party projects like Spravedlivaya Rossiya and Pravoye Delo were founded with active consent and assistance out of the PA. You may call these organizations astroturf as in fake grassroots organizations, but that does not mean these organizations do not operate out of their own interests and formulate their own critical position vice versa both president and government.

Their loyalty means following the consensus not to touch upon the existing division of powers and not to call for an elite changing revolution. Russia has lived through enough revolutions and seen enough turmoil. Evolution not revolution should be the way forward. Who can say they are wrong?

Surkov’s work therefore is a coin with two sides. Yes his policies have – as you write- been containing political discussion and muting dissent. At the same time he – as part of the Putin team - has been able to build consensus around a gradual path of modernization including the early signs of something resembling a welfare state and - as they see it- a sustainable form of democratization.

The lessons of Soviet Union collapse run deep: Russia needs an elite that can renew itself, but without sudden shocks. The Russian economy needs a free plural society so its people may use their economic potential to the max. On the other hand this freedom may not lead to a rise in criminality, tax evasion and another parade of sovereignties.

The lack of a pluralist party system and not one dominated by a United Russia that fears open debate is not so much a question of political will at the top, but one of the institutional constraints such a large party with about every governor and mayor of a large cities creates for itself. Putin and Surkov must be well aware they have created a monster. Putin’s choice for non-party member Medvedev, his own decision to go and sit on top of UR ambitions and recent activity around Pravoye Delo can hardly be interpreted otherwise.

Similarly, the fight against corruption and reform of the penal- and court systems, let alone the creation of a more diverse economy depend only to degree upon the political will within the Kremlin towers. The main constraints are institutional and cultural.

Finally, the idea that public opinion in Russia is shaped out of Surkov’s office by means of subordinated polling agencies and that consequentially Putin’s popularity is a myth or that anti-American sentiments have little to do with US actions, but all the more with an anti-Americanism promoted by Putin is in my humble opinion a fallacy, promoting the wrong type of approach to ‘getting Russia right’ and a major cause for ‘loosing Russia’.

Nothing is as destructive for a relationship as well intended but mistaken criticism. Russia needs our criticism in its development towards a society with a stronger and more plural set of institutions that may truly ensure peoples rights and freedoms. It’s not only their responsibility to move forward, it is also our responsibility to assist Russia with quality criticism. Like they can fail, we can fail too.

I am looking forward to continue our discussion.

With kind regards,
Joera Mulders

The Netherlands