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The Age of Neutralization and Politicization in Russia: A Brief Prehistory of the March Elections

March 2, 2008, marked the most uneventful event in Russian and, indeed, world politics—the election of Dmitry Medvedev to the post of the President of Russia. Having reached a cathartic pitch in the period immediately preceding the naming of Medvedev as the “successor” (preyemnik) to Putin, the speculation and suspense have been exhausted long before the elections. Yet, despite its profoundly anticlimactic quality, which left the Russian public absolutely cold and apathetic to a pre-fixed outcome, March 2 was a culmination of sorts. It functioned as a conclusion to a particularly insidious aspect of “Putin’s Plan,” the most ambitious aim of which was to drain the political sphere of uncertainty and risk that render it political in the first place. Smacking of the Soviet bureaucratic regulation of economy, the formal utopian core of the plan was the creation, by the year 2020, of a completely administered society devoid of antagonisms or disagreements within the chain of command, all the way down to local and municipal authorities.

In some sense, then, the result of the March elections was determined neither at the polls, nor, even, in the process of selecting or naming the successor. Rather, the foundation for securing the desired result had been laid in the eight years of Putin’s rule and, especially, in a laborious construction of “the power vertical” (vertikal’ vlasti). This euphemism, which certainly does not sound very comforting to a Western ear, denotes an arrangement that mandates the concentration of all authority, including gubernatorial appointments and the control of mass media, in the hands of the president and of the de jure nationalized but de facto re-privatized corporations in charge of immense natural resources, such as oil and natural gas. Besides its intended consequences, not the least of which is to ward off a new re-privatization of resources and the subsequent “expropriation of expropriators,” the power vertical has created a permanent state of exception to the constitutional regime that guarantees, among other things, local self-government (Articles 130-3) and freedom of mass media (Article 29).

The act of suspending the constitution inscribed into the very possibility of the power vertical is the sovereign decision par excellence. Nonetheless, the direct outcome of this exercise of hyper-sovereignty is a suspension of the political order as such, its conversion into a vertically fashioned world of de-politicized administration, where there is finally no qualitative difference between the appointments of regional leaders, the distribution of CEO roles in state monopolies, and the act of magnanimously granting an efficient manager to the system as a whole. (A fresh local joke emphasizes the absurdity and impossibility of the attempts to square this sovereign decision and constitutional law: “A new version of the Russian Constitution should state: ‘The President of the Russian Federation is elected for a period of four years by the previous President of the Russian Federation.'”)

Putin’s “vertical,” however, is a far cry from Carl Schmitt’s “representation from above.” His appointees are not the vicarious incarnations of his sovereign power, but abstract representatives of the idea of stability (or continuity) and concrete economic functionaries. Both kinds of representation were, of course, deeply abhorrent for Schmitt. Furthermore, the desire to rid the public sphere of the vestiges of antagonism and to remove from the political game the last shreds of risk ultimately aspires toward what Schmitt diagnosed as de-politicization and neutralization in the last stages of economism and technologism divorced, in this case, from the project of liberalism. While the consolidation of the power vertical was accompanied by a ruthless expropriation of privately owned corporations, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s YUKOS, the political strategy of selling this policy to the Russian public in the guise of stability was reduced to a technological achievement. Polittekhnologii, political technologies, became a watchword of Putin’s regime and an indirect admission of the fact that a vacuum had formed in the place of stale ideological justifications. In this sense, the installation of Medvedev at the helm of the state should not come as a surprise, given that he perfectly synthesizes the figures of a technocrat and an economic manager as one of the past heads of Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly.

I would like to pay closer attention to “political technologies”—a strange term of the post-ideological age—because it seems to galvanize all the contradictions of the current situation in Russia. Schmitt himself would have been interested in this paradoxical amalgam because it brings together the final, technological stage of de-politicization and neutralization, which functions as a ruse for vested economic interests, and the political itself. To be sure, in the composite term, the word political is abbreviated, betraying the general functionalization or technologization of language and highlighting the ever-decreasing role politics is allowed to play in comparison to technology. Yet, despite this truncation and mutilation, the intensity of the political continued to simmer below the undeniable tendencies toward neutralization. In particular, Putin’s two terms in office were defined by hardnosed identifications of public enemies and numerous attempts to channel collective energy and affect into a fight against them.

During the first four years (2000–2004), the figure of the enemy was almost identical with the image of the Chechen terrorist. Associated with threats to the territorial integrity of the country and, at a deeper level, with foreign elements within the body politic, this enemy was meant to epitomize the barbarian (that is, in technical Aristotelian language, an enemy “by nature”) based on the existing belief-structures already prevalent in the Russian cultural ethos. Everyone remembers Putin’s patently vulgar quip at a press conference, “We will pursue and soak the terrorists in the john [mochit’ v sortire],” which found resonance with the Russian public and inaugurated another invasion of Chechnia. The last four years (2004–2008) saw a shift in political discourse, such that the enemy came to designate rich, renegade oligarchs, whose enrichment was linked to the impoverishment of the common folk. It is rather obvious that what motivated this transformation was the objective to reallocate control over natural resources from one elite clique to another, under the guise of re-nationalization. The private economic adversaries emerged as the public political enemies, once again, on the grounds of a pre-existing popular sentiment (this time, envy) and, more importantly, thanks to a xenophobic and anti-Semitic mistrust of the old oligarchs, a vast majority of whom were Jewish.

The chief paradox of the past eight years in Russia is, therefore, the conjunction of political neutralization and political activation: the dissipation of politics into an ideally risk-free administrative/economic enterprise and the mobilization of public negative affect against sharply outlined and, to a large extent, caricaturized enemies. But, if the March elections signify anything, they should be interpreted as the symbolic end of the second era of the enemy. Carefully orchestrated speculation as to whether or not President Medvedev will grant Khodorkovsky—a prominent oligarch serving time in a Siberian labor camp—his pardon is the first harbinger of this change. Were it to become reality, such an exceptional gesture would certainly solidify the new president’s shaky hold on sovereignty, but it would also signal that the deposed oligarchs are no longer a threat. It is plausible that the spotlight would, then, shift to the external enemies, for instance, the expanding NATO or the former Soviet republics of Georgia and the Ukraine. Numerous precedents are already pointing in this direction.

On the other hand, the slow agony of the political in Russia cannot last indefinitely. With Medvedev’s rise to power, the tense coexistence of neutralization and politicization is on the threshold of being finally exhausted. At the end of Putin’s official second term in office, the Russian state finds itself set directly against the socium, lacking a buffer zone of the civil society, which was stifled in its embryonic form in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As such, the total state fully assumes its monopoly on politics and, in embodying the latter, announces the end of the political or, at least, its relegation to other, non-state actors.

In this volatile situation, the political opposition will be effective only if it contests the sovereignty of the total state and, in so doing, revitalizes political energy in the country. The oft-times brutal silencing of a small but vigorous protest movement comprising “The Other Russia” (Drugaya Rossia) Bloc resulted in shutting its candidates out of the parliamentary and presidential elections alike. The coalition that brings together groups as diverse as the pro-Western liberal democrats and Limonov’s National Bolsheviks (Natsboly) rivals the fluidity of what Schmitt called “a complex of opposites,” complexio oppositorum, referring to the political elasticity of Catholicism. The movement’s name is, of course, intended to provide a glimmer of hope and to suggest that there is an alternative to totalitarian rule. But, it seems to me, “The Other Russia” loses in advance when it consents to playing on the political field defined by the mainstream authorities, precisely, because it identifies with the Other, that is to say, with the public enemy in the abstract. A much more subversive maneuver would have been to disclose the otherness and, hence, the enemy status of the regime itself by revealing the particularity of those interests that pretend to be universal. However symbolic and, therefore, not immediately fruitful it might be, the recent initiative of “The Other Russia” to create a country-wide alternative parliament (first, from the banned party lists of the Bloc itself and, subsequently, welcoming other radical oppositional groups) is a step in the right direction of laying the groundwork for a contestation of sovereignty. Only then will the new Leviathan live up to its Hobbesian designation as a “mortal god”: as “a machine whose ‘mortality’ is based on the fact that one day it may be shattered by civil war or rebellion.” [1]


1. Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 100.

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