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If Vladimir Putin disappears, as has already happened a couple of in the past three years, nobody will notice. Putin is very often criticized for having made the system excessively dependent on his own person. The regime, people say, has become critically personalized and if one fine day the president stops performing his duties everything will collapse. But over the past three years processes have been taking place that tend to refute that prospect: In a certain sense it turns out that if Putin is everywhere, then he is nowhere. Hundreds of mini-Putins have turned up to replace Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. And here is how it happened.
«Guessing the Boss’s Thoughts»
«One and the same question has occurred to everyone in the Kremlin during these terrible days: Who is running the Russian state? In 12 years of rule Putin has managed to set up a system such that it is his word that is decisive on a great many issues. How are all these issues being decided now, when no commands are arriving from Putin? The subordinates have, of course, learned to guess the boss’s thoughts, to conjecture, to extrapolate. But by now the absence of Putin has dragged on somewhat.» That is an extract from Mikhail Zygar’s book All the Kremlin’s Men [Vsya Kremlevskaya Rat], which talks about the events of fall 2012 — at that time the president did not appear in public for more three months. What place does Putin really hold in the decisionmaking system? And how does this system work if Putin gradually dissolves within his own political space?
The properties of an object create its identity and make it possible to create identification criteria, but identification takes place through isolation. An apple is called an apple because by its origin, form, taste, and other qualities it is different from other objects. But if you pour a liter of water into water, it will be impossible to identify it. When Putin came to power in August 1999 he was an absolutely alien element in relation to the environment. The elite, the logic of decisionmaking, the rhetoric, the style and dynamics of political behavior — all of this laid down the nature of the functioning and self-identification of an environment in which Putin was different. By 2007 it was possible to speak of the completion of the stage of bringing the environment into line «to suit himself.» He was an active player who was involved in every detail of internal and external management. Putin’s expansion into the inner space was halted in practically the final stage in 2008, after the election of Medvedev, and accelerated dramatically in September 2011 when his return became known.
But what happens when Putin becomes «Putin»? When a physical individual with his thoughts, logic, and style suddenly ceases to be unique and all his properties are adopted by his entourage? Everything around him turns out to be even more Putin than he is. Putin’s entire entourage dissolved into him until it merged into a single Putin space, in which the actual Putin of 1999 was no longer present. At first Putin swallowed up everything around him, and then those who were on the inside swallowed and digested Putin himself. Now he is everywhere, which means he is nowhere. «The subordinates have learned to guess the boss’s thoughts.» Every player becomes a reflection of the president. Like in a room with a million mirrors — you cannot find the one with which it all began. Each one will carry within itself a particle of light from the others.
What happens in practice in this situation? Putin loses the initiative, because the dividing line between his proposals and the proposals of his subordinates is erased. What does Putin want? It was easy to answer that question until 2008. Putin, knowing how to identify himself in relation to the environment, was transparent and comprehensible even when he was not telling the truth or when he himself did not know the precise answer. His position appeared stable and balanced. Today you can easily find in his speeches first the rhetoric of the system liberals, then of the hawks, then of the technocrats. He is traditionalist, pro-market, liberal, and conservative simultaneously. The movement in the direction of conservatism is determined by the rivalry between Putin and the Putin elite: The latter wants to be better and more right than Putin himself. And Putin, adopting the rhetoric of his entourage as his own, strives to be clearer and more radical.
Years Without Decisions
The dissolution of Putin is also promoted by the environment, which is becoming increasingly static. The fluctuations are dying down, one initiative is stifled by another. Putin is no longer the arbiter, because he simultaneously supports everything that makes up his Putin space. Privatization begins and never ends: Putin supports the initiative of the ministers in the economic field as well as that of the heads of the state companies who say that this is not the time for a sell-off. The liberalization of criminal law is initiated and promptly emasculated, because Putin agrees that it is necessary to create more comfortable conditions for business, but he also shares the position of the siloviki [security chiefs], who are opposed to those whom they see as self-seeking oligarchs who stole billions. Putin always agrees in general terms, but makes so many exceptions in the details that he emasculates the process.
That is why it is Yuriy Trutnev who goes to the Davos summit and not Dmitriy Medvedev — henceforth the country is being run by a collective Putin who could not send the prime minister to Davos, give impetus to the privatization process, and begin structural reforms. The collective Putin adopts only compromise, half-hearted, neutral decisions in domestic policy. This is nothing less than the complete opposite of the Putin of the first term.
A new time is coming when many new phenomena and processes will emerge that will apparently have Putin’s authorization but will in reality constitute an expansion within the Putin space of people who «play at being Putin.» Everyone who possesses administrative resources is becoming a mini-Putin. The number of decisions that Putin does not know about is growing, as was so clearly visible from his December phone-in. It is convenient for the collective Putin that its forefather is distracted from affairs, engaged in planetary, global issues that divert all his attention from the current domestic routine. We are arriving at a situation where every player, guessing at Putin’s will, begins to implement the will of the collective Putin, interpreted with some degree or other of garbling. The fear of doing the wrong thing is crowded out by the fear of being too late. A graphic example is Kadyrov’s behavior: Seeking support, he is sifting through methods of attracting the president’s attention, boosting his own worth, and provoking Putin into a reaction.
What decision has Putin personally made in domestic policy, including the economy, over the past three years? A question that could floor many commentators. Many laws toughening the regime are the initiative of the siloviki, the «traditionalists,» the conservatives. Putin rules, but increasingly frequently Putin is ruled through analytical memorandums. To take Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s company away from him it is sufficient to prove that he is a «traitor.» Stop the reforms? You have to prove that Russia’s economy is stronger than ever before and oil prices will rise without fail. Strengthen the Security Council forum as an alternative to the government? Easy — you simply have to tell Putin in detail about the development by the United States of the concept of the preventive nuclear strike and plans for the dismemberment of Russia.
Putin has dissolved, the country is already being run by the collective Putin. The president himself is turning into the impersonal brand of the established regime. This is a brand, a collection of symbols and meanings that anyone can try on like clothes. Put on a Putin T-shirt and you are already part of the collective Putin. And it does not matter who is elected in 2018. He will be dressed in a Putin T-shirt. The only question for Russian society is whether it sees the difference between the leader of the 2000s and the collective Putin of the 2010s.