By Sergei Samoilenko
In March 2017, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most famous anti-corruption activist, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation launched a large-scale investigation campaign “Don’t Call Him Dimon.” An investigative video posted on YouTube accused Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister and former president of Russia, of creating a corrupt network of charity foundations and soliciting bribes from oligarchs. The video argued that despite Medvedev’s apparent lack of personality and public image as “Putin’s puppet,” one shouldn’t be fooled by his servility and dismissive nickname, “Dimon.”
In other words, the video tried to point out the obvious discrepancy between Medvedev’s reputation and his true colors, and accuse him of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A month after release, the video had over 17 million views and supposedly prompted 45% of surveyed Russians to support Medvedev’s resignation. Despite the obvious controversy, the Anti-Medvedev campaign didn’t lead to any serious public outrage or significantly change ordinary Russians’ attitude towards Dmitry Medvedev. This begs the question: is it possible to assassinate someone’s character if there is no apparent character in the first place?
Dmitry Medvedev is a career administrator and a veteran of Russian politics who started his career in as a legal consultant to the St. Petersburg office of external affairs headed by Vladimir Putin. Medvedev is a typical example of Weberian rational-legal authority, a style based on following normative rules. He is an integral part of the Russian political bureaucratic machine with little charisma and no individual powerbase according to many observers.
Ambiguity & Character Assassination
Arguably, bureaucratic leadership is more resistant towards character assassination because its communication style is better suited for media relations purposes and often provides leaders with “character insurance” against future scandals. This type of authority is frequently associated with vague communication that serves to reduce any unnecessary confrontation and retain power. Strategic ambiguity preserves future options because it provides politicians an opportunity to maneuver and save face gracefully.
Constructive ambiguity is a term often credited to former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that refers to a negotiating tactic used to disguise an inability to resolve a contentious issue. For those who have already achieved a certain social or political status, clarity is always risky. It provides the public with new information which can result in a potentially negative reevaluation of character. Many political long-term survivors, including Vladimir Putin, are known for their craft of strategic ambiguity.
Charisma & Character Assassination
The notion of character refers to a set of strongly marked attributes that make up and distinguish an individual. Many public figures with distinctive personality traits are typically visionary and sensitive to the environment, and the needs of ordinary people. Charismatic leaders, like Donald Trump, frequently emerge in turbulent times with a radical vision and a populist agenda that appears especially attractive when the public has low confidence in leading authorities and their administrative power. They shine under conditions when they have to appease the public by appearing strong. They often speak in slogans and publicly condemn the mistakes of the current establishment to attract more followers. They are not afraid to express their emotions in public and promise easy solutions to complex social issues. For example, Trump’s constant emphasis on corrupt politicians, broken policies, and the threat of crime stemming from illegal immigration implies that America is no longer great. Presidential sabre-rattling increases during times of war and in response to dramatic events such as terror attacks. Frequently, presidents use pretended bellicose rhetoric to bolster their domestic support.
Charismatic leaders are popular with the media because they have news value. However, the media is a double-edge sword. On one hand, in the age of tabloid politics, personal traits and imagery of politicians become important acceptance criteria for issues and policies. On the other hand, in order to appear legitimate, these leaders need to constantly cultivate stories. A system appears legitimate as long as people have faith in stories justifying the advantages of the system and the new political course. In many cases, charismatic leadership ends when good stories end.
Charismatic leaders frequently become known for personal risk-taking and unconventional behavior. Because of their colorful personalities and unorthodox behavior, they often become vulnerable to character attacks. Such leaders become the scapegoats when something goes wrong because they appear solely responsible for any mistakes made. In other words, charismatic leaders may appear at any time and thrive in crises when they are supposed to inspire people and bring a dying organization back to life. At the same time, organizations that may become overly dependent on such leaders often crumble if they must step down.
Character Vulnerability in a Bureaucratic System
Given the elusive and unpredictable nature of charisma, the longevity of the political system depends on bureaucratic management and adherence of leaders to indisputable rules and regulations. Apropos, ahead of presidential elections next March, the Russian President has shown the door to 15 regional heads since the start of the year with an estimated 10 more expected to go very soon. The former governors were replaced by mainly young, inexperienced technocrats to serve as acting governors who apparently were appointed based on their loyalty to the Kremlin.
Clearly, the Kremlin’s choice to replace many charismatic governors is a new strategy to increase control over some of Russia’s more unreliable regions. In other words, the sustainability of the Russian political regime is assured by the constant production and replacement of standardized, identical, scandal-proof bureaucrats. Well, even if one of the new appointees fails because of some reputation scandal, the failure won’t have any major impact on the system. His competitive skillset can be easily replaced by another clone. Moreover, Medvedev’s case demonstrates that every character assassination attempt against top-notch bureaucrats helps to solidify their place in the system and assure future loyalty to the party line.
Clearly, bureaucratic authority has many advantages even for governments striving to strengthen their vertical power. The only issue is that people are “narrative beings,” who experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives that help them explain and re-create their lives. They get easily bored with everlasting mantras and easily fall for a new charismatic troubadour especially when the old system no longer offers fresh and exciting stories.