In life — whether in business or politics — it is deep in our humanity that “command and control” only goes so far because some of us inherently have dissent programmed deep within us.
In nations that are authoritarian, as Americans, it can be hard to conceptualize disagreement for leadership and on core issues. If you veer from the authoritarian leader, don’t you die? Just by scanning the newspaper, it is obvious that this does not explain things. Think just in the last couple of weeks: about apparent disagreement between the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad in Iran about the nuclear program, the struggle between Putin and Medvedev over the presidency of Russia, and the drama around the disposal of Bo Xilai (and his family) in China. All these societies have also seen a dramatic uptick in citizen action over the last few years, whether it has been dissent on the street or in social media.
These incidents suggest another potential model of disagreement in authoritarian societies: massive disagreement behind the scenes, while publicly maintaining the illusion of an authoritarian unity. That illusion has to be maintained, because if disagreement becomes public, this invites disorder, for if there is an ongoing debate about power and the future, why shouldn’t it be more open and why shouldn’t the citizens be involved more directly and broadly?
The Weekend FT recently had an incredible piece about the process in Russia. Here are some relevant excerpts:
However, Andrei Kolesnikov, who has covered the Putin beat at Kommersant newspaper for the past 12 years, and wrote the first authorised biography of Putin, said that maintaining the placid exterior was the central principle of competition within the Kremlin. “The various teams are expected to fight with each other, to compete for everything on behalf of their boss,” he said. “But the cardinal rule is that the principals should never be dragged into these battles unless they want to be.”
Konstantin Remchukov, the editor and owner of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the influential Moscow daily newspaper, said that competition among staff was obvious. “Putin would make an appointment to see a minister at 10:15 in the White House, in downtown Moscow, while Medvedev would make an appointment with the same minister a few hours later at his residence outside the city,” meaning it was nearly impossible for the minister to make both appointments on time. “It was a kind of managed chaos,” said Remchukov.
A forceful, merciless and omnipotent ruler has been a near-permanent fixture inside the red brick walls and onion domes of the Kremlin since it was first built in the 15th century. And yet, this image of the tsar has always been at least partly the result of a co-operative effort by the Kremlin court, in which the notables and barons conspired to make even the weak, sickly, absurdly young, or the utterly disinterested in ruling appear fearsome, while painting themselves as quivering supplicants.
In a classic essay published in the 1970s, at the height of the cold war, Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan argued that the notion of an omnipotent, autocratic tsar has largely been a myth throughout 500 years of Russian history; instead, the rule has been a system of Kremlin court politics, within which the guiding principle is consensus. Clan politics within the Kremlin, he wrote, was “symbolically expressed in a kind of self-imposed fictional subservience to an autocratic tsar, and ensured by the awareness that the fiction was the central element of a conspiracy against political chaos that would ensue if clan were to be set against clan”.
Keenan’s conclusions appear every bit as valid today as they did 30 years ago. While Putin is unquestionably the most powerful figure in Russia, it is clear he doesn’t entirely lay claim either to the aura of absolutist tsar, as projected by his supporters, or autocratic despot, as proposed by his detractors.
“You know, Putin is not in fact a dictator,” said Oleg Vyugin, chairman of MDM Bank, and former deputy head of Russia’s central bank. “A dictator is when you really do control the elite, and each day decide, ‘Today you’re getting this and tomorrow you’re getting this, and you’re not getting anything’… For Putin, the situation is more complicated. Putin has to take into account very many different interests in politics, and try to combine them.”
Instead of an Olympian throne, it would seem that Putin sits at the nexus of modern-day boyar clans in perpetual conflict, in the form of the state corporations, oligarchic financial-industrial groups, bureaucrats and the police.