This Article is a continuation of the Part-1 article published on March 28th. In comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin with American Depression Era Politician Huey Long. In comparing Mr. Putin and Mr. Long it is important to look how the two seized power. The two men took power in different manners, Mr. Long was elected in a landslide election, while Mr. Putin became Acting President, upon Yeltsin’s resignation then was confirmed for a full term with a majoritarian win over 33 other candidates, many of whom were unviable to say the least.
However the two men’s methodology for finding themselves in their respective high offices remains unimportant. What is important is how they consolidated their power through personal force of will. Nevertheless, both men played on populist sentiments of disenfranchisement in order to secure their power base. In many ways Mr. Putin acted far more aggressively against the oligarchs who had run the country during the Yeltsin era. Indeed, many of the oligarchs who were virtual princes in Yeltsin’s administration are now in exile or prison. However, both men used similar methods against oligarchs and corporate interest in order to secure the reins of power.
Huey Long was quick to recognize that the Louisiana oligarchs’ hold on state politics was the result of money particularly graft. Through a program of public works and tax hikes Long was able to transform the State government into the primary source of payouts. He used public works projects such as bridges, roads, dams, hospitals, and schools, as a means to control parish, city and state officials. He did this not only by withholding these very popular projects from places that didn’t follow his orders, but also by giving contracts to companies that local politicians were partners in. This method and a virtual catalogue of other crooked methods allowed Long to not only secure the loyalty of elected government officials who in turn appointed, and confirmed Long’s choices of state bureaucrats. It also allowed him to enhance his popularity with the common people, so while the power of the old guard shrank, Long’s power increased.
Putin used a very different tactic than Long’s when it came to dealing with the oligarchs. Almost as soon as he had the power he acted swiftly and aggressively, first charging oligarchs who opposed him with any number of crimes based on Russia’s arcane and overly complex law code. Convictions themselves were not important; bail could be set unreasonably high or not at all. Meanwhile the offending oligarch would spend years tied up in the Russian judicial system, with the ultimate verdict never in doubt. Of course if oligarchs did not want to be subjected to these torments, they had to stop opposing Putin politically and stop looting their companies and begin running them properly, with an increase state ownership of course. This improved the overall economic situation and led to a turnaround in many of Russia’s largest industries. With the Oligarchs brought to heel Putin had eliminated the only class of Russians who could realistically oppose him, while at the same time stabilizing the nation’s economy. With this accomplished, Putin was able to use his knowledge of the Russian state infrastructure to consolidate his power. Under Yeltsin the assorted Governors and Presidents of Russia’s many regions had taken as much autonomy as they could grab. Putin put a stop to this, like Long he used strong arm tactics in order to ensure that once he held the reigns of power he could maintain and control the means of power.
Maintaining the means of power is where Putin and Long are very much the same and also much different. It is fair to say that Long had to contend with America’s much more established democratic traditions and a far better entrenched opposition. Huey Long armed, twisted, cajoled, and threatened his way out of an impeachment. He then used his same bullying tactics to get opponents ejected from office. He also lessened the vote restrictions in Louisiana to allow more poor whites that made up the backbone of his base to vote. He built up an efficient ballot stuffing system-based on an overlapping system of patronage with him at the top. It was Long’s candidates that won party primaries, Long’s men who registered voters, Long’s men who ran polling stations and Long’s men who counted the votes. With such a system in place, anyone who paid sufficient homage to the Governor could become an elected official. If they became disloyal they could be removed democratically. Despite the extensiveness of this system, the opposition did not meekly roll over. Anti-Long local machines were established which kept enough opposition Lawmakers, Judges, and sheriffs in power to hamper Long efforts.
Putin’s system of patronage is much broader and more encompassing than Long’s, extending not only to his own political party but also to the opposition. Putin has in his almost two decades in office, used the vast security apparatus, and bureaucracy Russian inherited from the Soviet Union, To consolidate complete control over the entire country’s political system. By first dividing the country into federal districts, then removing the need to elect regional governors, and finally converting federal elections into a party list system with a minimum percentage to hold seats in the Duma. Putin has marginalized and lobotomized any organized alternative government. Huey Long, for all his cunning, fought a virulent entrenched opposition until his demise. In contemporary Russia there is no alternative government waiting in the wings opposing Putin’s whims.
Deputies in Russian opposition parties that are also anti-Putin find themselves harassed by the security services. Parties that are anti-Putin are marginalized in the electorate, investigated and harassed. United Russia controls almost half the Duma and it is a lackey to Putin’s orders – each of its deputies owing their seat to someone who owes his position to the President. The opposition parties holding office – Just Russia, Communist, and Liberal Democrats also owe their seats to Putin, the ones who qualify for election are the ones who will play ball, and if they become too uppity they are subjected to first investigations, financial and legal ruin then disqualification to run again. So while the opposition can advocate for its constituents it cannot oppose the President, if Putin wants a law passed it will be passed.
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