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The vulnerability of Putin's feudal regime:
The massacre in the Krasnodar region and the riot in Moscow

Vladimir PutinDate: Thu, 23 Dec 2010
From: Vladimir Shlapentokh <shlapent@msu.edu>

The international media has paid a great deal of attention to the Russian political regime in recent weeks, in part due to the recent publishing of WikiLeaks materials. Although most of the observations made by American and foreign analysts are, in sum, quite reasonable, they do not present a well-balanced view of contemporary Russian society. Most of the reports about Russia focus on three things: the non-democratic character of the existing political order, corruption, and Putin's supremacy. But, in recognizing Russian society as authoritarian, corrupt, and even criminalized, the analysts reporting on contemporary Russia have not paid sufficient attention to the deep weakness of the regime, nor to its inability to control the state apparatus, particularly in the provinces.

In fact, Russia looks like a classic feudal society. In such a society, the leader protects his power against any rival. There is no serious opposition to the current political administration in Russia, as there was in the first half of the 1990s. Putin, who is actually the paramount leader of Russia, has even created his own cult, which hardly yields in its pompous glorification of the General Secretary as if he were a Russian monarch. Putin's visits to the headquarters of a newspaper or a factory are staged like a royal visit. Putin appears on Russian TV news programs much more often than Brezhnev ever did. Russian TV has obediently showcased "the national leader" (a semi-official title for Putin) in a variety of positive lights. The TV media has characterized him as an excellent manager, who knows everything that is going on in every corner of the country. TV has also produced images of him as a judo wrestler, a singer and piano player, and a fire-fighting water bomber. They have shown him piloting a military plane; participating in submarine travel; diving in the depths of the Baikal Sea; attempting to become a contestant in Formula 1 racing; chasing gray whales; hugging a polar bear; and as a master of the German and English languages. On December 3, 2010, in a press conference addressing the FIFA announcement that Russian would host the 2018 World Cup, Putin spoke like a man wielding unlimited power. Without reservations, he announced which private business structures will be responsible for financing the games. Putin designated the Russian oil company Lukoil as being responsible for building Spartak's Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. He also unceremoniously ordered the magnate Roman Abramovich "who has a lot of money...to shake some of it off" for the sake of the game. (Sitting in the room in which Putin gave the interview, Abramovich, with his approving smirks, looked like a second-rank apparatchik, ready to obey any humiliating order from his superior.)

Putin further demonstrated his self-confidence in his absolute sovereignty over the country and his freedom from the bounds of laws-whether put in place by the international or domestic domain-when, during his call-in show on December 16th, he unceremoniously called Mikhail Khodorkovsky a criminal. Putin accused him, without any incriminating evidence, of having sponsored several murders. In this same brazen way, he labeled his political opposition-the leading liberals-thieves who only "want to return to power and refill their pockets"

Yet, even with all these attributes of power, Putin and his administration - like a king and his court from the Middle Ages - are extremely passive in supervising the bureaucracy. The source of the evident weakness of Putin's "vertical power," so touted by his propagandists, is the same as it was for a typical royal administration in the Middle Ages. Putin, like feudal kings, prefers to concentrate most of his limited resources on protecting his personal power; only interfering in the life of the provinces, or even the capital, during such high emergencies that the regime is in jeopardy. Indeed, in exchange for the support of his regime, Putin has provided almost every official-from governors to municipal office clerks-with the right to exploit their office with impunity. This brings them a variety of illegal benefits, from control of private companies to procuring regular bribes from the population.

Indeed, Putin's networks are not as powerful as those of earlier Soviet leaders; they had a party committee and the KGB in every settlement and in each factory, shopping mall or college. The party apparatchiks and KGB officers were totally loyal to the regime and its ideology, since their well being and careers depended entirely on their obeisance to orders from the Kremlin. Today's governmental party, "Russia's unity"-with its almost complete lack of discipline and ideology-is a parody of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Officials at all levels of the bureaucracy, including almost all of the members of Putin's party, ignore the national interests of the country, and will only execute directives from Moscow if they do not damage their own interests. Recently, most of these officials or their relatives have become either owners or stockholders of private companies, which have made them materially invulnerable. Even if they lose their lucrative offices, they will continue to prosper.

This is in deep contrast to the lamentable fate of the disgraced Soviet apparatchiks, even those at as high a level as Nikita Khrushchev. What is more, the members of the current bureaucracy, and even the Kremlin itself, are deeply convinced that those who replace them will be as thoroughly corrupt as their predecessors, which makes firing them, essentially, meaningless. During the 10 years of Putin's regime (as well as Yeltsin's regime before him), there has not been a single trial on the corruption of a high official.

Since Putin and his circle wish to reduce the possibility of losing power, they are reluctant to start a public investigation of corruption in Moscow, or in any other part of the country. There is always a risk that Russian leaders would be implicated as culprits-during any of several stages in the investigation.

The existing contract between the Russian leaders and its bureaucracy reflects the realities of Russian life, its difference from the Soviet realities, and its similarities to the relations between seigniors and their networks of vassals, as described in the feudal model.

It is true that the current administration can appoint or dismiss an individual governor (or presidents of national republics or mayors of the biggest cities), and punish some officials of low ranks. As long as that governor behaves like a true vassal-abstaining from national politics, showing deference to the boss in public, and providing the votes necessary for Putin or Medvedev to maintain their positions-the population of that city or region is completely at the mercy of the local boss. The Russian leaders ignore the most arrant acts of corruption: a mayor or governor and/or their relatives grabbing ownership of local companies; collusion between private businesses and the local authorities/law enforcement agencies/mafias; local administrations having total control over media and elections; and the murder of journalists, rivals, or politicians. As mentioned earlier, Moscow only interferes in regional affairs in cases of extreme emergency, such as the riots against the regime in Vladivostok and Moscow, the power plant explosion in the Krasnoiarsk region, or the coal mine disaster in the Kemerovo region.

Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is an excellent example of how Putin's regime works. For more than 15 years, Luzhkov-a true feudal baron-did whatever he wanted in his fief. In order to maintain absolute power over the city, he openly and cynically rigged the local elections. He did this so he could create coteries of myrmidons, his own vassals, to run the districts in Moscow. Because of his power as a true feudal baron, he had complete control over the judiciary system in Moscow, which explains why he won every single case lodged against him in the local courts. Remarkably, he also made his wife a billionaire, by granting her companies very lucrative deals, under favorable terms, with the city of Moscow. At the same time, Luzhkov did not interfere with either national politics or the Kremlin's financial machine, and its respective corporate headquarters, in Moscow. Everyone knew the character of Luzhkov's behavior as the mayor of Moscow. Oppositional politicians, like Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, even managed to publish a special report on Luzhkov's activities, despite the obstacles. Yet, Putin's administration (as had Yeltsin's before) pretended not to know about them. It was only after Medvedev, under Putin's orders, fired Luzhkov (he was considered a possible nuisance in the 2012 presidential election campaign) that the state-run TV produced a series of documentaries. They showed a realistic picture of Moscow's mayor, provoking the disgust of the public, which asked the Kremlin why it had been so friendly to Luzhkov, given his extreme corruption over almost two decades. It is also notable that, following Luzhkov's dismissal, Putin, the Russian leader, failed to go after Luzhkov to investigate his corrupt and criminal activity as mayor.

The developments in the Krasnodar region in November, and Moscow in December 2010, showed the country how far the feudalization of their society has progressed; how inept the current Russian leadership is at maintaining elementary order in the country; and how dangerous the current situation is to the survival of the Russian Federation.

On November 4, 2010, twelve people-including four children-were brutally murdered in the large village of Kushchevskaia (about 35,000 residents, about the size of a typical small Russian city), located in the Krasnodar region, North Caucasus. This horrendous event showed the country, and the world, the scale of violence that has reigned in Russia recently. In some ways, it overshadowed the previous slayings of Russian journalists and politicians, which had, in their own right, drawn international attention. A detailed description of the events in Kushchevskaya, will help us to better understand the state of affairs in the whole country

For the last 15 years, Kushchevskaya has been under almost complete control of a criminal structure. Moscow investigators and journalists discovered that there had been 220 crimes reported in the last ten years. The murders of the chief of the village administrative council, Boris Moskvich, as well as of several farmers and young women, clearly sent a message to the residents.

While bandits forced all of the farmers to pay a levy, the gang that had taken over the area intertwined itself with various businesses, which is a typical phenomenon in contemporary Russia. For example, the mother of one gang leader, Nadezhda Tsapok, was the owner of a large agricultural firm; a relative of another leader may be the head of another firm. Exemplifying another typical phenomenon in contemporary Russia, Tsapok created the security firm "Centurion," which was an official "roof" for the gang, and was generally comprised of up to 100 "warriors." In fact, the gang started redistributing property acquired in the 1990s, yet another typical phenomenon for Putin's Russia. For instance, a Moscow newspaper reported a story of two farmers. The gang usurped their land, and then transferred it to business people who were "roofed" by the criminal structures. When one of the farmers resisted, it was broken up with the help of local police.

Of course, the ownership of villas in both Spain and Italy has also become common in contemporary Russian life. Indeed, both gang leaders, Sergei Tsepoviaz and Sergei Tsapok, are rumored to have villas in the aforementioned countries. Then there is the castle in Rostov, which belongs to gang leader Tsapok; it is equipped with video cameras and separated from the street by a high fence.

Similar to feudal times, the gangs in Kushchevskaya also collected money from students, passengers on buses that crossed their "territory," and even from the officers of an army regiment located in that territory. The bandits could easily burst into any home and take what they wanted. The residents almost never left their homes in the evenings for fear that they would come across roving gang members, who would use any pretext to harm them.

The plight of women in Kushchevskaya is also of great significance. These women have been raped regularly; many of the victims are school-aged girls. No fewer than 200 women have been the object of this aggressive violence. The local authorities did not attempt to investigate these cases, and, of course, none of the perpetrators was punished. Neither the women nor their parents or relatives could find any protection against this violence. With a total lack of safety from the rapists, female students from two educational institutions in Kushchevskaya-a branch of the North Cuban humanitarian technological institute and the vocational medical school-fled the village. One can only compare the frequency of these rapes with similar developments during the civil wars in African countries.

Even after the Moscow authorities intervened, the terror that dominated the village was so great that most of the residents refused to cooperate with the investigation and provide police with information regarding the crimes perpetrated over the years. Neither local police officers who were clearly not involved in the crimes, nor the local newspaper editor would talk to journalists from the capital, out of fear of reprisals by the gangs.

The mistrust of both local and central law enforcement agencies was so deep that the residents did not believe that the few people arrested were actually guilty of the crimes; they were, instead, confident that the true perpetrators were intentionally left at-large, and represented a mortal danger to those who cooperated with the investigation. It is conceivable that only at the peak of collectivization, in the 1930s, were Russian villages similarly engulfed by such total fear (a sentiment that Russian writer Andrei Platonov portrayed very vividly in his novels Chevengur and The Foundation Pit). As Moscow journalist Uliana Skoibeda wrote, "I never saw in my life so scared people as in this village." A characteristic detail: A Moscow investigator contends that the massacre occurred on the evening of November 4th, before 11 p.m., and lasted one hour. It is absolutely impossible that neighbors did not hear the cars as they arrived, simultaneously, to the victims' homes. It is also unlikely that they were deaf to the cries of the victims, or blind to the house fires initiated by the bandits in order to destroy the evidence.

It is clear that this gang was able to carry out its violence with the cooperation of the local police and local administration, as well as with obvious support from administrations in Krasnodar. One of the alleged leaders of the gang, Sergei Tsepoviaz, is a member of the local legislature, while another, Sergei Tsapok, had such a good relationship with the regional authorities in Krasnodar that he received a PhD in sociology, evidently with their help.

What is more, the central administration was aware of these developments. As ironclad evidence in favor of this statement, the Moscow media cited this fact five years ago, when the governmental newspaper, Rossiskaia Gazeta, published an in-depth article on the criminal terror in the village. A group of students who once lived in the village also sent a letter to the central administration describing the atrocities that had taken place. Yet, these texts, which made the criminal picture of Kushchevskaya undeniable, did not bring forth any serious consequences. Neither the regional nor the national administration, including the Minister of Internal Affairs, made any serious moves to stop or diminish the violence. Today, Moscow journalists mock the declarations of the local and national authorities, who say they did not have enough detailed information about the violent developments in the area to do anything. The journalists point out that all manner of people sent complaints, from ordinary people to members of the State Duma. At the same time, the media has uncovered information that clearly shows that the attorney general of the Krasnodar region put a halt to the criminal investigation of one of the gang leaders in 2009.

Unfortunately, even if the central administration sent an entire army of investigators, including the Chairman of The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office, most observers doubt that the investigation would uncover the connection between Kushchevskaya and Krasnodar, or the relationship between Krasnodar's regional administration and Moscow's leadership. Moscow journalists perceive the meetings of the various bodies of the Minister of Internal Affairs-both central and local-at which a handful of plans for exterminating the crimes in the region were proposed, as being typical show-off actions that will have very little effect in real life. A prominent member of the State Duma, Gennady Gudkov, said he was confident that the only way an actual investigation of the massacre would take place would be if the Kremlin was not afraid to discover that the protectors of these crimes are at the highest levels of the hierarchy.

The most important development in Krasnodar was the role of the governor, Alexander Tkachev-who is a highly visible politician on the national scene-and the attitudes of the Russian leaders towards him. In the beginning, he vehemently denied that he was aware of the criminal climate in his region. During his meeting with selected residents from the village on November 19th, he portrayed himself as a fellow victim in this tragic story. However, a few days later he recognized that "the gangs are active in each district of [the] Krasnodar region," and even confessed, seemingly reluctantly, "the gangs had support in the regional center". Yet, as if in strict accordance with the feudal pact between Moscow and the local barons, Medvedev invited Tkachev to the Kremlin and assigned him to head the investigation. Together with the beating of Moscow journalist Oleg Kashin, which happened almost the same day, the event in Kushchevskaia has prompted Russians to look again at the state of order in the country.

As a Russian analyst wrote in the aftermath of the incident, which left carnage of children and their parents in Kushchevskaya, "there are in Russia many dozens the Middle Ages enclaves like Kushchevskaya." These events show that the level of lawlessness in the country has not diminished, as it did in the 1990s (note that a major item in Putin's propaganda was that violence was diminishing in the country), but has increased substantially. The Public Chamber, a body with some elements of independence from the Kremlin, did not characterize the event in Kushchevskaya as an exceptional case, but as "a typical manifestation of the criminal genocide against the whole population of Russia, which has lasted decades."

As many commentators have stated, what happened in Kushchevskaya showed both the lack of democracy within the society and the dominance of violence and corruption in a country that has united four major actors: bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, business, and criminal structures. As the prominent Moscow journalist Yulia Kalinina wrote, "Kushchevskaya is far [from being] a single case. There is [a] sea of villages, small and big cities, which are [as] terrorized as Kushchevskaya."

More important than the judgments of analysts were the conclusions made by Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court, who has a reputation for being loyal to Putin. In the Russian Government newspaper, Rossiiskaia Gazeta, he wrote that Russian Mafia organized crime is a sickening plague on the health of civil society in Russia. He also noted that it was 'obvious' that, in some parts of the country, it is becoming impossible to distinguish between local governments and Mafia operations. He bluntly declared, "Our citizens will become divided between predators, free in the criminal jungle, and subhumans, conscious that they are only prey."

The massacre in Kushchevskaya showed that violence and the corruption of law enforcement agencies, as well as of local administrations, were dominant features of the society in November. Despite the intense horror surrounding the developments in the Krasnodar region, the public's attention shifted in December, to the riots in Moscow, which looked even more ghastly and dangerous for the Russian people and their country.

The murder of a Russian soccer fan by a group of non-Russians from the Caucasus region triggered the riots on December 5th. After arresting the participants of the murder, Moscow police released them, only re-arresting one after the protests begun. Most people in Moscow believe that ethnic criminal clans have the police on their payroll, and this course of events only confirmed this belief. Animated by their hatred for the police and loathing of Muslim residents, the protest actions-whose initial participants were mostly soccer fans-turned into riots, in which people displayed aggressive nationalist slogans like "Russia for Russians" and "Moscow for Muscovites." Thousands of young people gathered in the Moscow streets, using one of the most famous squares-Manezhnaia ploshchad, which is very close to the Kremlin wall-as their rallying place. Not since the revolution had Moscow seen what happened in this square on December 11, 2010. Young nationalists pelted the police with smoke bombs, bottles, pieces of ice, burning flares, and metal fence posts. After the rally, hundreds of protesters entered the Moscow metro, where they continued their rampage, beating people passing through from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow police were completely unprepared for the violence in Manezh, as well as in the nearby metro station, where rioters continued their assaults. After a very evident delay, the authorities decided to deploy 6,000 police officers and 1,000 Interior Ministry troops on the streets of Moscow.

The attacks on non-Russians, and their counterattacks against Russian young people, were a fixture in Moscow for the entire week. There were thousands of people arrested in Moscow during this week. The capital was plunged into fear, as never before. Whenever possible, people avoided the subway, so as not to be the victims of the fights between youths of different ethnic groups. Many Moscow residents and, especially, their children tried not to leave their homes. Ethnic clashes occurred in many other areas in the aftermath of Moscow's riot: St. Petersburg, Tolyatti, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don and Novosibirsk. They also happened in the Belgorod and Samara regions, and in the Udmurtiia republic.

It is obvious that this outburst of aggressive and violent Russian nationalism in Moscow and other cities have taken the central administration aback, despite the fact that the Kremlin has flirted with these xenophobic organizations for a long time. Only a month ago, they were allowed to carry out a march in Moscow with thousands of participants.

On the first day of the riots, Dmitry Medvedev called an emergency Security Council meeting, and signed a decree providing additional measures to beef up domestic security. During his talk show, Putin could not hide his shock over what had happened so close to the Kremlin wall.

Political adviser Marat Gelman told a Russian newspaper that the day's events showed that the true danger was in the very fact that street violence had become possible. He added, "Organized groups of people appear who think that they have the right to enforce justice, in essence, after getting a license for this from a weak state." Another analyst wrote that the developments on the Manezh square, which became the center of these events, shows that order in Moscow is almost as fragile as it is in Kushchevskaya.

The violence and corruption that enables total lawlessness in the country makes projects focused on societal modernization a laughable issue for the great majority of Russians. Much more important, the perseverance and expansion of the alliances among the four major actors in Russia, as mentioned above, undermines the fabric of Russian society.

The current high price of oil may permit the Russian leadership to deter the dangerous consequences of a nefarious alliance between the major actors against the normal order in society. Putin's regime and the corrupt-criminal society will continue as it is now for some time to come. In this case, as many Russian analysts suggest, Russia will continue to decay, moving slowly, as the prominent journalist Yulia Latynina suggests, to the status of "failing state." However, the current social and political climate in Russia provides fertile ground in which two negative scenarios could prosper, especially if oil prices were to drop. On the one hand, there could be a push towards totalitarianism, under the auspices of restoring order and fighting corruption. Rabid Russian nationalism and calls for the deportation of "dark-skinned people" (the derogatory label for the people from the Caucasian and Central Asian republics) might be adopted as the ideological basis for the restoration of a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, another scenario supposes that the perpetuation of Putin's regime, with its corruption and ineptitude, will embolden separatism in the provinces-a normal development in a feudal society-which could even lead to the disintegration of the country. At the meeting with soccer fans on December 21 Putin himself described a gloomy scenario. "If we will not manage interethnic conflicts " said Putin, "we will get not a great Russia but a territory torn by internal contradictions ' The country, added premier minister, will begin to fall out before our eyes". Never Putin used such a gloomy picture of possible Russia's future in the past.

The West, especially the United States, must always keep the precarious nature of the Russian political order, which is so similar to a feudal society, in mind and not be deluded by Putin's and Medvedev's public airs of self-confidence. It is a fact that they are unable to maintain even a modicum of order and security for their citizens; not in Moscow, and, most especially, not in the provinces. The implications of this fundamental fact could be exceedingly disastrous for the future survival of Russia as we know it today.


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