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Putin's 'hands-on management': How the Russian leader makes it personal

The Kremlin has been able to make its decisions without public scrutiny, despite the disparate Russian elites jockeying for the president’s ear. Even those directly involved have no idea with whom else Putin may be consulting.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Moscow, in December 2014.
    Maxim Shipenkov/Pool/AP
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Regarded from the West, Russia’s political system may seem something like an inscrutable sphinx, with a big – perhaps smiling – Vladimir Putin face on it.

But Russia is a diverse society of 145 million people, with many sectoral interests and a full spectrum of views. When government policies change, the economy dips, and tensions mount with the West, different groups of Russians are affected in varying ways.

The Kremlin, which sits atop that potential volcano, has managed to bring all interests into alignment over the past decade and a half. But how President Putin has managed to navigate the past stormy year while maintaining an 80 percent public approval rating is a huge mystery.

Somehow the Kremlin manages to juggle, on a daily basis, the clashing interests within what Russians call the “elite,” meaning the tycoons, generals, industrial managers, regional officials, and public intellectuals who tend to be the primary movers and shakers in Russian society.

It is a very disparate crowd jockeying for Putin’s ear.

Members of the military-security establishment, collectively known as siloviki, tend to be anti-Western hawks who favor tougher, authoritarian government. The ultrawealthy “oligarchs,” including many Putin cronies, have major debts and business interests in the West, and are squirming amid the current crisis. In addition, thousands of influential local officials administer the country’s 85 far-flung regions and must get approval for almost anything they want directly from Moscow authorities. Beyond that, intellectuals who inhabit academia and regularly appear in the mass media still enjoy some sway.

The system favors the Kremlin, which tends to be the ultimate mediator between competing interests. It has been able to make its decisions without public scrutiny; even those directly involved have no idea with whom else Putin and other Kremlin officials may be consulting.

“One of the instruments of Putin’s rule has been to sideline organizations that express any collective will. He meets people as individuals, talks and deals with them on a personal basis,” says Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime Kremlin critic and expert at the official Institute for Systems Analysis in Moscow.

“This system has a name: ruchnoye upravleniye [roughly “hands-on management”]. Because everything goes directly through Putin, this forces them to be individually loyal to him. It is the secret of his success, but it is also a very vulnerable system. It resembles more a style of mafia control than the workings of a modern state,” he says.

The balance that Putin has maintained is a remarkable achievement since Russia has no legislation to enable what Americans call “lobbying.” The Kremlin actively discourages any big sectoral organizations that seek to represent special interests. Almost all influence is exerted on a completely informal basis, usually meaning private arrangements with Putin and his officials.

“For about 20 years we’ve been trying to get a law adopted that would institutionalize lobbying and make it transparent,” says Igor Yurgens, a longtime advocate for private business. “We still don’t have one. If you look at lists of influential ‘lobbyists’ published in the press, you will find private interests side by side with top officials – something that sounds like nonsense or even heresy in the US. But this is the system we have. It’s very mixed, and it has no set rules.”

Yevgeny Minchenko, a Moscow political scientist who’s published the closest thing to a map of how political influence percolates through the Kremlin, says the balance is shifting now that the Putin-era prosperity is fading and various sectors of the elite are feeling pain – or sensing opportunity – in different ways. And, he says, new actors could appear.

“Nobody has had to consider public opinion as an independent force for quite a while, because people were generally satisfied,” he says. “But if economic decline continues, it would be unwise to count on the public remaining quiet.”

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