Putin built a dynamic of fear to control politicians, businessmen and citizens: how the repressive machinery works in Russia

Vladimir Putin (Reuters) (SPUTNIK /)

When Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000, he vowed to restore a “vertical of power” that he said had been undermined during the 1990s, when the state was in deep decline. In his recently published book, “La Verticale de la peur. Ordre et allégeance en Russia poutinienne”, the researcher Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, specialist in issues of violence, police and justice in the post-Soviet space, deciphers the political, legal and often paralegal mechanisms by which the head of state has managed to implement a system based much more on the fear of elites and ordinary citizens of being crushed by the repressive machinery than on the scrupulous respect for the law. This fear is omnipresent in Russian society and is an explanatory element to take into account when analyzing the causes of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the nature of the reaction of Russian society. here un excerpt from the introduction of the bookwhich presents its main theses.

“Having formed the vertical of power, Vladimir Putin embarks on the construction of the horizontal of power. Thus, he will have finished building the cage of power in 2002 ″.

This joke, which circulated at the beginning of Putin’s reign, sounds different two decades later, when the ukrainian war it rages and the repression of opponents in Russia is in full swing. Why has the president remained in power for so long and managed to impose such a relentless political agenda? Despite the sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia since 2014 and aimed at undermining the legitimacy of its leaders, neither the rebellion of the elites nor the protest movements seem to take shape for the moment. To what do you owe the longevity of the ruling team, the fears it arouses, the economic interests it ensures and the social support it enjoys?

“The vertical of fear. Order and loyalty in Putin’s Russia”, by researcher Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, a specialist in issues of violence, police and justice in the post-Soviet space

This book explores the dynamics of power in Russia. boards theThe political and social uses of coercion, analyzing the control of political and administrative officials, the use of intimidation in the business world and citizen initiatives in the fight against crime and incivilities.

How does the presidential administration use the rules against elected officials and senior officials? How is the law mobilized in local account adjustments? How do self-proclaimed vigilantes use the law to maintain order in the public space? These practices are part of the “dictatorship of the law” promised by the head of state in 2000using a provocative expression at a time when Russian political elites and Western pundits swore the need to democratize the country and build a “rule of law”.

The initial objective of this “dictatorship” was restore state authority, especially in the regions that the local elites managed as fiefdoms. Valuing three professional skills -the gathering of information, the fabrication of media scandals and the exercise of justice-, resulted in intimidation through the law becoming a competitive and lucrative business.

Contrary to popular belief, Russian society does not consecrate the reign of “legal nihilism”: most ordinary disputes are resolved within the framework of the law. But the law can also be mobilized, in a more transgressive way, to defend the perks of the leaders, serve as a weapon against rivals or as a pretext for the abuses of the executioners. Far from being a bulwark against arbitrariness, the law is then one of its vehicles, at the service of the strongest.

The “dictatorship of the law” applies above all to elected officials and administrative officials. Political prisoners are not the only ones bearing the brunt of repression: during the 2010s, few States have imprisoned such a significant number of ministers, governors, mayors, and senior officials. Their loyalty to the presidential power gives them impunity, but it is conditional: they are placed in a state of insecurity by being exposed to judicial processes that are played beforehand and magistrates subject to hierarchical mandates. In a clientelistic “system” in which one owes one’s position – and the accompanying resources, legal or otherwise – to a superior protector, the instrumentalization of law and justice plays a crucial disciplinary role. The accusation of corruption it’s the most common, with detectives as comfortable in law enforcement as they are in private offices, blackmailers, spreaders of scandals, media heralds and order-abiding judges.

This control does not lack legitimacy in the eyes of society. Many Russian citizens express their mistrust of the elites and call for increased repression. This demand for severity is exploited by all the protagonists of the political game, from Vladimir Putin to Alexei Navalny. He explains that, despite the international bad reputation of a ruling class considered to be outlaws, The repression of corruption has been a constant on the political agenda for several decades, since before the fall of the USSR. Popular support for the repression is explained in particular by the prevalence of a scapegoat figure – the corrupt official – who consolidates presidential legitimacy. In the discourse of the leaders, to which a part of the population adheres, it is precisely this intermediary who is blamed for the deficient application of public policies, and not the head of state.

In this way, the fight against corruption manages to eliminate opponents while posing as virtuous politics. Does this mean that the “dictatorship of law” works according to its objectives? In other words, should we consider that the “cage of power” is already complete? If the “dictatorship of the law” contributes to the maintenance of political order, it should not accredit a pyramidal representation, in line with the “vertical power” promoted by the head of state. This would be retransmitting presidential communication, which tends to personalize political power, ultimately attributing it to an omnipotent sovereign, only at the top.

The three powers necessary to exercise the “dictatorship of law” – intelligence, media, justice – are available at the local level and lend themselves to commercial use. The social actors do not stop seizing them, with total autonomy. At the local level, two variants of the “dictatorship of the law” are observed: the reckoning in connection with financial disputes and the participation of volunteers in the police for profit.

As at the central level, these power relations are based on the legal vulnerability of the adversary, the instrumentalization of the law and the invocation of a social demand. By increasing the risk of excesses, these variations are also potential sources of disorder that challenge federal authorities. The “dictatorship of law” has to face centrifugal forces and the “vertical of power”, subjected to strong pressures, wavers constantly.

By focusing on configurations of power and their evolution, this book attempts to avoid two pitfalls. On the one hand, it proposes to divert attention from the analyzes that value intellectual circles, gray eminences and currents of thought that supposedly inspire the ideology of the country’s leaders. It takes the approach of studying coalitions that pool professional competencies to exercise power, power relations between rivals, as well as the interdependencies between political personnel and self-proclaimed representatives of civil society. By being attentive to the inflections that have occurred in the last two decades, he also intends to distance himself from the works that seek to close the analysis of the political regime by placing the most appropriate label on it. There have been many debates on this topic since the end of the USSR. Disappointed by Russia’s results, experts on “democratic transition” have competed in imagination: “hybrid” or “dual” regime, “qualified” or “illiberal” democracy, “competitive” or “neo-Soviet” authoritarianism… If no one dares to associate Russia with a democracy, however imperfect, the academic debate continues, especially evaluating the relevance of considering this country as a “dictatorship” or even a “fascist” state.

Power in Russia is often compared to a mafia order. Russian political scientist Vladimir Gelman cites The Godfather to illustrate the concept of “imposed consensus”, which he defines as an “offer that cannot be refused”, because the benefits of taking a position are, in his opinion, greater than the costs of challenging it. Observed since the late 1990s, the spread of underworld jargon in the political world often serves as proof of proof. The analogy is also taken up by opponents, notably Alexei Navalny when he described United Russia in 2011 as a “party of thieves and swindlers”, the term “thief” referring to status in the criminal underworld. The accusation is repeated several times in this book, associating the “dictatorship of the law” with “gangster methods.” […]

This analogy has been used in numerous historical and sociological studies. Indeed, the practices described in this book are reminiscent of those used by violent actors to stay in a territory: clientelism, that is, granting favors in exchange for loyalty, adherence to unwritten conventions, the art of intimidation and blackmail, legitimization through the response to a request for order, or the valorization of an identity and common values.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, overlookes the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Sergeevskyi training ground outside the city of Ussuriysk on the Russian Far East on September 6, 2022. - The Vostok 2022 military exercises, involving several Kremlin-friendly countries including China, takes place from September 1-7 across several training grounds in Russia's Far East and in the waters off it.  Over 50,000 soldiers and more than 5,000 units of military equipment, including 140 aircraft and 60 ships, are involved in the drills.  (Photo by Mikhail KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP)
Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (AFP) (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV /)

Inspired by two decades of research on the use of coercion in Russia, this book focuses on characters and cases that seem emblematic of the ordinary functioning of power. It is based not only on my own work, but also on my own experience: I have witnessed the progression of authoritarianism in this country and I myself have paid the price for the “dictatorship of the law” by being accused of economic espionage, tried and expelled from the country in 2008.

Written after the start of the war in Ukraine, this book attempts to make sense of these observations in light of the current offensive. In such a charged context, which arouses anger and bitterness, one runs the risk of succumbing to the temptation of retrospective overrationalization. The current conflict was not in the genes of Putinism, and the formation of the Russian state, constantly subjected to opposing forces and contradictory evolutions, built on jolts, accelerations and setbacks, could have followed a very different course. To avoid any determinism, it is less a question of identifying the causes than of making sense of the indications that show how the forces that have been acting in the “dictatorship of law” for more than twenty years have accompanied the authoritarian hardening of the regime.

Article originally published in The Conversation- Gilles Favarel-Garrigues is Director of Research, Sciences Po-CERI, Sciences Po

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