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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 3: Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

Vladimir Putin and Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zhukovsky 2010.

Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

A few weeks after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, odd reports emerged concerning the seeming disappearance of Vladimir Putin. On 5 March, rumours in Moscow about the lack of any sightings of Russia's President began to be picked up by journalists and on social media. In the following days, a wave of speculation attracted the attention of the wider media. From outlandish theories over the birth of a son to mutterings that a coup d'etat may be imminent, the botched and chaotic handling of Putin's vanishing act by his public relations team reinforced the perception that a power battle was taking place within the Kremlin. Though Putin's resurfacing on March 16 helped to dampen such speculation, the barely suppressed panic his absence had caused among Moscow as well as regional elites has added considerable momentum to a wider debate over what might happen if he was permanently removed from the scene. Though the Kremlin swiftly shifted to business as usual upon Putin's return, the way in which his absence has concentrated minds about the manner and consequences of his fall may be the most damaging legacy this episode has left for his regime.

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate about how Putin may fall is what most analysts assume will not happen. A general consensus has taken hold among Russia scholars that the Kremlin, for all its obsession with 'color revolutions',  is not likely to be brought down through mass protest. While there are some milieus in Moscow and St. Petersburg that may be willing to protest, Sam Greene and other analysts have concluded that they simply don't have the numbers to overwhelm the massive security presence the regime has built up in Russia's two dominant urban centres. 

Though economic protest may take a political turn in key regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia or perhaps even Tatarstan if the Kremlin botches its response, it is difficult to see how such local demonstrations could reach a national scale, particularly if the regime accuses regional activists of separatism. Other possibilities such as a violent military coup were also dismissed, with Russia watchers setting out how difficult it would be for officers outside the Kremlin inner circle to conspire before being stopped by the FSB. Though the proliferation of armed nationalist groups and the influence of Chechen units in Moscow is likely to become a deepening source of instability, they do not have the capacity or necessarily even the will to attempt to bring down the regime without powerful allies within the highest levels of government. 

As these other options were dismissed, many prominent Russia watchers such as Mark Galeotti, Vladimir Ryzhkov or Lilia Shevtsova set out what they believed to be the most likely scenario for Putin's eventual fall. Often described as the 'soft coup' or 'Khruschev option', this is presented as a potential moment of elite consensus where all key figures within the leadership come to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin is no longer able to safeguard the survival of the status quo and their position within it. As with the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in August 1964, key figures would move swiftly to remove the current President's access to the levers of power before replacing him with a more pliant successor who could both stabilise relations with Ukraine and the West (hopefully on Russia's terms), while also ensuring that any necessary reforms did not impinge on the power base of each of the key Kremlin factions. While popular protest over economic matters, a military quagmire in the Donbass and a severe economic recession may all contribute to this scenario, ultimately this would be a meeting of grey men in grey suits ensuring the peaceful removal of the president as part of a wider drive to stabilise the regime rather than to replace it.

The popularity of this scenario among so many perceptive observers of Russian affairs is based on a notion that it is rooted in regime practice in recent Russian and Soviet history. The removals of Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin are used as precedents, where a similar confluence of internal and external crises (which in the Khrushchev case included an uprising in the regions) led key decision makers to come together and force the figure at the apex of the Soviet or Russian power vertical to leave without putting up a fight. The way in which these historical examples played out has fostered the assumption that the path to Post-Putinism would be similar, in that a figure that dominates the Russian state would be forced to quietly bow out and watch as his subordinates openly disavow significant parts of his political agenda.

If one considers how Russia under Putin has evolved away from the industrial structures of its Twentieth century and towards a patrimonial social framework closer to that of contemporary Middle Eastern regimes, then these assumptions become decidedly problematic. The manner in which the crisis of the modernization project of High Putinism flowed into the fragmentation of power and state paranoia of Late Putinism parallels developments in Egypt and Pakistan has been outlined in the two previous posts in this series. Yet in both cases the culmination of these crises played out in the aftermath of the sudden death of the central figure within both regimes, an outcome that is less likely in Russia. In Egypt, the death of Nasser in 1969 gave his successor, Anwar Sadat, an opportunity to reorient the regime through a so-called de-Nasserization programme. In Pakistan, the rather suspicious death of Zia ul Haq in a plane crash in 1988 enabled the return of elite pluralism with the political comeback of the Bhutto family, a form of resurgence of former opposition groups which may take considerably more time in the Russian context.

There is, however, one example in the Greater Middle East of an attempted peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader steeped in the use of disinformation and hybrid tactics that should attract the attention of Russia watchers. Along with Putin's disappearance, March 2015 saw another major geopolitical surprise with the Saudi bombing campaign against the Yemeni Houthi movement and troops loyal to its ally former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This external intervention was the culmination of developments in Yemen that have interesting parallels to the proliferation of crises that may face the Putin regime over the next few years. It is not just that Saleh's quip that "ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes" is also a pretty apt description of the challenges Putin faces in sustaining control over contemporary Russian politics. The slow collapse of the Yemeni state in the final years of Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule and his current campaign against all those who expedited his peaceful removal indicates that an authoritarian leader removed from power in a soft coup can remain in a position to sabotage his successors. While the language with which Yemeni and Russian society are described may differ enormously, below the surface many of the dynamics that led to Saleh's war of revenge can also be found in Late Putinism.

Ali Abdullah Saleh provides his own take own take on the origins of the 'Arab Spring

Though it is difficult to imagine now, there was a time when Saleh was seen as a figure who could guarantee the unity and stability of an impoverished and fractious society. His early military career took shape in an environment marked by civil war and political turmoil. In the late 1950s a Republican revolt failed to dislodge the Imamate, a quasi-monarchical hereditary autocracy backed by Saudi Arabia. An Egyptian military intervention ordered by Nasser to support the Republican side quickly followed, leading to a long civil war that only ended after Cairo withdrew its forces in 1967 and the Saudis abandoned their support of the Imam in 1970. Having largely fought on the Republican side of the conflict, Saleh emerged as a young but experienced officer with a reputation for getting things done in the newly consolidated Yemen Arab Republic. As older officers became enmeshed in factional infighting, Saleh slowly built complex tribal alliances with established regional clan leaders while presenting himself to the wider world as a modernizing leader in the Nasser tradition.

Thus, when his predecessor, North Yemen President Ahmed Hussein Al-Ghashmi was assassinated in 1978,  Saleh was ideally positioned to gather support both from traditional leaders with strong links to Saudi Arabia as well as American and European diplomats who saw opportunities in a reformed and modernized North Yemen. In the ensuing decade, Saleh was able to entrench his power network to the extent that when financial pressures led to the unification of North Yemen with the neighbouring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990, he was in a position to maintain strong influence over all levels of government despite sharing power with Southern leaders. Though the breakdown of this agreement ultimately led to civil war in 1994, Saleh’s dominance in the North enabled him to mobilise a coalition of forces that pulverised a divided Southern leadership in Aden,. The successful suppression of the Southern elite ensured that tribes and interest groups allied to Saleh would benefit from Yemen’s newly found oil wealth. 

Yet it was the manner in which Saleh secured this dominance which sowed the seeds for his downfall and war of revenge two decades later. Rather than relying on a brittle military, Saleh used semi-feudal tribal levies as well as jihadi veterans of the Afghanistan War as shock troops. In the final assault on Aden, the Southern capital, Saleh deployed hybrid tactics that would have been familiar to Pakistani or Russian leaders. After the sacking of Aden and other Southern cities, Saleh's Northern jihadi and tribal supporters were rewarded with property and businesses expropriated from those that had lost out in the conquered territories. While this secured their loyalty in the short term, it enabled senior Northern tribal leaders such as the Ahmar clan to expand their personal power bases, while, as Stephen Day has indicated, alienating a large proportion of the Southern population in the process.

Moreover, the Saudi-backed jihadi networks Saleh invited in to help seize Aden slowly expanded their reach in an increasingly destabilizing fashion, as Gregory Johnsen has explored in great detail. Some turned on the Saleh regime and merged with Al Qaeda by the early 2000s, attracting the unwanted attention of the United States and its expanding drone assassination operations. As corrosive was the aggressive missionizing of former Sunni jihadis who remained loyal to Saleh. By challenging the established social order in Northern provinces such as Saada, the aggressive approach taken by radical Salafists and former jihadis provoked an uprising by a Zaidi Shia traditionalist movement led by Hussein al-Houthi, which went to war several times with the Yemeni state between 2004 and 2011.

By relying on non-state actors to secure his position in 1994 and retain control in the ensuing two decades, as Sarah Phillips indicated even before the mass protests of 2011, Saleh ultimately created the foundations for his own downfall. With his claims to be an agent of modernization a long distant memory, by the time the first Arab Spring protests gained momentum in Sanaa and became intermingled with separatist resentments in Aden the state institutions which Saleh needed to either satisfy the demands of protesters or quash them through swift action had been hollowed out. With military and police units loyal to individual commanders connected to tribal networks, Saleh again was reduced to calling in the help of tribal allies to keep control. The very corruption based on oil revenue and foreign aid which fuelled the 2011 protests thus remained essential to Saleh's hold on power. Without these cash transfers his remaining allies were likely to join the clans and officers that had already defected. His temporary removal from the scene to a Riyadh hospital after barely surviving a bomb attack on 3 June 2011 was enough to convince his allies that a deal was needed to force his resignation and end the state paralysis that was undermining whatever stability remained in Yemen.

Thus followed the kind of peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader that matches scenario many Russia watchers would assume would play out in the final days of the Putin regime. Concerned that tension between Saleh and senior figures that had abandoned the regime such as General Mohsen Ali and the head of the Ahmar tribal confederation could escalate into a civil war, external powers such as the Saudis, the US and the UN worked together with local elites to ensure a peaceful handover of power. Despite such foreign mediation, Saleh's peaceful removal from power had the hallmarks of an elite coup. Once core regime loyalists within the General People's Congress (GPC), his personal political party, began negotiating with senior protest leaders and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Islah Party, as Adam Baron and Iona Craig observed there were clear signs of an elite consensus that his resignation was overdue.

In order to prevent the Northern Houthi movement and Southern separatists taking advantage of the situation, a so-called 'National Dialogue' was put in place which was to act as a form of constitutional convention to modernize and democratize the Yemeni state. Not coincidentally, this was to go hand in hand with an extensive restructuring and re-equipping of the Yemeni Army to enable it to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and wrest restore the state's monopoly of violence over such political actors as the Houthis, tribal networks or the Hirak separatists. While Saleh resigned with as good grace as he could muster, he was promised immunity and his supporters were able to retain positions within the military and state bureaucracy. In order to secure the political transition, a former Southern ally of Saleh's, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was allowed to stand for president unopposed to ensure the stable functioning of government as changes were slowly put in place. By the spring of 2012, as American and European leaders touted the 'Yemen Model' as an example of successful political transition in the Middle East, Saleh seemed to be settling in to a comfortable retirement in his Sanaa villa.

Minus the foreign involvement (though China could take a direct interest), this easing out of Saleh by members of his own power vertical comes close to the elite coup model that many Russia scholars see as the only way in which Vladimir Putin's rule could be ended relatively smoothly. Just as Saleh's GPC core reached out to military defectors, tribal leaders, and protest coordinators, Kremlin loyalists could work with disaffected members of the elite, alienated regional leaders and prominent members of the opposition to arrange a stage-managed removal of Putin in a way that does not threaten the core interests of those involved. Putin's fate would be determined by the willingness of his supporters to arrange a meeting in the Kremlin where he would be clearly told that his time is up before being sent to enjoy quiet retirement under intense surveillance. In that context, the 'Yemen Model' touted by Western officials was often presented as a format that could be used to manage transition processes in other parts of the world. As late as January 2014, the US State Department was promoting the political process in Yemen as a success as other aspects of the Obama team's foreign policy approach came under pressure.

A year later the situation looks very different. Once the Hadi government failed to come to grips with a growing lack of security and botched reforms of petrol subsidies, the Houthi movement took the opportunity to use mass protests to attack pro-government militias and seize control of Sanaa by October 2014. In the ensuing months, the Houthis gradually forced members of the political elite loyal to Hadi to flee Northern Yemen and by late February 2015 had launched an offensive on the main Southern centres of Taiz and Aden, leaving the National Dialogue process in tatters. Building on initially tenuous links with the Tehran, the Houthis did their best to court Iranian support for their increasingly open takeover of the Yemeni state.

Yet as the country drifted into chaos, what took observers most by surprise is how GPC factions and elements within the security services loyal to Saleh played an active role in aiding the Houthis to seize strategic targets. Once bitter rivals now collaborated in systematically eliminating shared opponents and courting an Iranian government interested in causing trouble for Saudi Arabia in a neighbouring state. This improbable Saleh/Houthi partnership culminated with the continuing assault on Aden that ultimately triggered a Saudi military intervention driven by fear of growing Iranian influence in Yemen. As Saudi jets hammer Sanaa and Houthi artillery pounds Aden,  Saleh has tried to reposition himself as a major player in a way that those that had arranged his removal from power would have thought  unimaginable in 2012.

As we watch Saleh hold rousing patriotic speeches to his supporters in front of his bombed out residence and try to manoeuvre his family back into contention on the international stage, it is worth pondering what lessons his war of revenge may teach us about any effort by Russian elites to quietly topple Vladimir Putin. For Saleh's bloody comeback has been enabled by the kind of hollowing out of state cohesion and the use of non-state actors to achieve strategic goals that have been a hallmark of Putin's survival strategy since the Bolotnaya protests.  While the internationally backed deal within Yemen's elite around the National Dialogue process helped remove Saleh from power, as Farea al-Muslimi warned, neither Hadi nor his allies were in a strong enough position to remove the many officers and officials in the security services loyal to the old regime. Deep rivalries between Yemeni military units and security agencies meant that those that had turned on Saleh were often more distracted with bureaucratic turf battles than keeping an eye on what the Saleh clan were getting up to. Saleh's extensive arming of non-state tribal and jihadist allies as well as the militarization of his Houthi and Southern opponents meant that it he could find enough potential allies throughout Yemen who he could work with to undermine the stability of a state no longer under his control.

The sudden successes of Al Qaeda affiliates in Hadhramaut province in 2012, weeks after Saleh had been forced to resign, were in retrospect a clear indication not only of state weakness but also of active attempts by officers unhappy with the new order to undermine any attempt to entrench a post-Saleh power structure. Despite their long standing rivalry with his own patronage network, Saleh found in the Houthis a well-armed and highly motivated movement equally disatisfied with the National Dialogue and willing to do anything to disrupt it. Thus while the West and the GCC promoted the 'Yemen model' and Sanaa elites wrangled over the constitutional details, the Houthis began their direct assault on a fragile Yemeni state while Saleh's allies quietly undermined it from within. Yet rather than achieving a shared swift victory and a new division of spoils, from September 2014 onwards each move by this Saleh/Houthi alliance to consolidate power only fractured the country further into warring fiefdoms and set the stage for a Saudi military intervention whose relentlessness few had anticipated.

Die-hard Saleh supporters denounce Saudi airstrikes, 10 May 2015

Just as Saleh was able to build on a network of supporters within state institutions and armed non-state actors, any newly reconstituted Kremlin elite would have to contend with Putin loyalists in the security services as well as militarized social milieus that may not take kindly to any attempt to change course. As we have seen in the previous post exploring legacy of High Putinism, the personalized nature of Putin's control of the Russian state is likely to make it extremely difficult for any of his successors to rein in institutions seeking to regain their autonomy. If Putin is ushered off the scene in a way that permanently isolates him from those still loyal to him within federal and regional institutions, then it might be possible for a new president to reassert central control over time. Yet any elite coup which simply removes Putin from power without rooting out his underlying support network provides him with opportunities to sabotage any post-Putinist settlement. Even if Putin were to lose his life in any Kremlin turmoil, there is a strong likelihood that many unhappy with a new order would take up the standard of Putinism in a counter-offensive against a new power vertical. Unlike Khrushchev, it is highly unlikely that Putin will simply sit quietly in his dacha writing bitter memoirs out of loyalty to an overarching institution like the Soviet-era Communist Party. Rather, the likelihood is greater that he, like Saleh, would work with any allies he could find to reassert his political influence and demonstrate that without his consent Russia cannot remain stable.

In this context, the proliferation of armed non-state actors that has become a characteristic of Late Putinism would provide Putin with opportunities for revenge against his opponents which Khrushchev simply had no access to. Just as Saleh could make deals with armed tribal networks and even former enemies in the Houthi movement who disapproved of Yemen's new political course, Putin can work with pseudo-Cossack groups, Chechen units under Ramzan Kadyrov's control, nationalist militias in Donbass, organized crime and discontented regional leaders who have the means with which to disrupt the state's monopoly of violence. Unless any successor is willing to engage in ruthless purges that in themselves could destabilize the state, Putin loyalists within the security apparatus and key ministries would be likely to find opportunities to paralyse the state's response to any armed opposition and discredit its new leadership in the eyes of the wider Russian public. In any post-Putinism scenario, a deposed leader who has relied so heavily on hybrid tactics to secure his position when in power is unlikely to abandon them when seeking revenge against his successors.

As an example of how an attempt to remove an entrenched leader can go disastrously wrong, the resilience of Ali Abdullah Saleh should give Russia watchers pause for thought. The widespread consensus that an elite coup could head off popular discontent without destabilizing the Kremlin's power structure presupposes the kind of institutional stability Soviet leaders could count on when they plotted against Nikita Khrushchev. Yet as we have seen in this and the previous two posts in this series, key aspects of the contemporary Russian state bare a greater structural resemblance to certain societies in the Greater Middle East than to the institutional framework of the Soviet Union. In a context in which the loyalty of semi-autonomous bureaucracies and regional barons is defined through their relationship to a specific leader and a proliferation of armed groups erode the state's monopoly of violence, a quick recalibration of the power vertical after Putin's fall seems unlikely. Even in such an initially benign scenario, the risks would remain high that a vengeful former Vozhd would rather bring down the state than see allies who had betrayed him prosper after a successful transition. The disastrous consequences of such an act of revenge by a deposed authoritarian leader are there for all to see in the bombed out streets of Aden and Sanaa.


Any historian using comparative methods to explore a contemporary political debate needs to acknowledge the limitations of this approach. For all the structural parallels that may exist between societies that are the subject of analysis, important differences in economic, political and cultural development that need to be kept in mind. There are therefore a number of important caveats when trying to establish what lessons can be learned from the contemporary history of the Greater Middle East when it comes to developing insights into the possible paths Russia may take.

When looking at the remarkable parallels between the highly personalized nature of the Egyptian political system that emerged under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the High Putinist era between 2000 and 2012, then key differences in economic structure also become apparent. The challenges the Kremlin faces in managing post-industrial decline and a rentier economy based on oil prices are very different from those Nasserist economic planners had to cope with when trying to industrialize a post-colonial economy heavily dependent on agriculture and cotton production. The major differences in economic development between 1990s Russia and 1950s Egypt meant that in certain key policy areas Putin and Nasser opted for very different ways of managing their relationships with business and regional elites.

The similar ways in which Vladimir Putin and Muhammad Zia ul Haq used hybrid tactics to pursue internal and external political strategies make the trajectory of Pakistani politics after 1988 an interesting case study for those trying to establish what the historical legacy of Late Putinism may become. Yet Zia himself was the product of military and religious traditions very different from those of the entrepreneurial security circles to which Putin belongs. As Shuja Nawaz has explored, Zia's formative years serving in the British Empire's Indian Army and within the Pakistani military meant that his contact with the world outside the officer corps remained limited. However much it also served his strategic goals, Zia's emphasis on the Islamicization of Pakistani society stemmed from a deep sense of personal faith. In particular, Zia always kept his distance from a business elite with which he did not feel culturally at ease. By contrast, Putin's rise began in a St Petersburg mayor's office in which former intelligence operatives, businessmen and gangsters mixed easily in the pursuit of profit. Moreover, for all the noisiness of Putin's apparent devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, it remains as yet unclear whether this is a result of any deeply held religious beliefs or out of purely tactical considerations. These differences in outlook and leadership style need to be taken into account when one looks at the parallels between the legacies of the Zia and Putin regimes.

With all the useful analogies one can draw between the circumstances that brought down Ali Abdullah Saleh and those that may lead to Vladimir Putin's fall, one of course needs to remain conscious of the major differences in the international position of their respective countries. As a resource poor state surrounded by wealthier and more militarily powerful neighbours, Yemen has regularly suffered from covert meddling and open armed interventions that have had a deeply disruptive effect. During his long period in power, Saleh has had to balance the competing demands of the Saudis, the Americans, the Europeans and Iran, who each have tried to influence Yemeni politics in ways that benefited their own economic or strategic interests. By contrast, despite the Kremlin's constant warnings about foreign meddling in Russian affairs, as the leader of a nuclear armed former superpower Putin has military, media and financial resources to assert his power on the international stage that Saleh can only dream of. As a result, the impact rival states have on Putin's political calculations are very different to the kind of external pressures faced by Saleh and his current Houthi partners.

Yet for all these important differences between contemporary Russia and states in the Greater Middle East, the structural parallels between these societies are far greater than those between the Putin regime and its Soviet or Tsarist predecessors. The personalized style of Putin's power vertical is far removed from the way in which even under Brezhnev, the Communist Party created an institutional and ideological framework that limited the freedom of action of rival factions within the Kremlin. Moreover, by the mid-nineteenth century, the legitimacy of Tsarist autocracy was anchored on a centuries old dynastic myth of which the fifteen year old Putin regime can only dream of. Yet a power vertical based on mutual dependencies between a corrupted leadership and state, business or regional elites that relies on a proliferation of armed non-state actors is a combination you can find both in Russia and states in the Greater Middle East.

That does not mean that Russia will inevitably suffer the various forms of societal breakdown we are witnessing today in Egypt, Pakistan or Yemen. Rather, a clearer understanding of how these societies drifted into a state of near permanent crisis would help scholars and policy makers to develop insights that can help prevent similar outcomes in the Russian Federation. The highly personalized nature of Nasser's regime ultimately eroded institutional mechanisms a central executive needs to hold strong state bureaucracies in check. Those in Russia trying to restore an institutional framework not dependent on a specific individual could draw key lessons about how such a process can go awry from recent developments in Egypt. Any post-Putin government struggling to restore the state monopoly of violence in the face of armed non-state actors could do well to examine the ongoing struggle in Pakistan to overcome the social damage caused by hybrid warfare. And perhaps most importantly, the dire consequences of the inability of a new Yemeni leadership in 2012 to uproot the power network of a former dictator may provide some indications of the tough decisions Russian politicians and civil society leaders may have to make in the immediate aftermath of any form of elite coup.

Over the past seventy years there has been a long history of political interaction and cultural exchange between Russia and the societies of the Greater Middle East. How these links between Moscow, Cairo, Islamabad and Sanaa may have contributed to the emerging structural parallels between Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and several states in the region would be a very useful topic for further research. At the very least, it would move away from a focus on the Kremlin's evolving relationship with the West towards setting out how contemporary Russian politics may have been the product of a variety of different external cultural and economic influences. Future scholars may even uncover how commercial and political links built between Russian and Middle Eastern elites from the 1950s onwards played a role in shaping the conditions that made the Kremlin's current power vertical possible. In that case, perhaps the next edition of Roger Owen's excellent book The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life may even end up with a chapter about a certain Vladimir Putin.

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