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With Or Without Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister in Sochi on May 14.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister in Sochi on May 14.

Everybody seems to be doing it. Or at least a lot of people are.

Some are doing it in the open and some in stealth. For some it's premeditated and for some it's just instinct. But one way or another, whether they realize it or not, they're all doing it.

From Aleksei Kudrin to Aleksei Chesnakov; from Mikhail Prokhorov to Sergei Mironov; from Vladislav Surkov to the siloviki; much of the Russian elite seems to be angling to make itself viable in a future when Vladimir Putin is no longer the undisputed master of the Kremlin.

"We see a lot of these survivalist tactics," New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"Nobody is ruling Putin out now. But the sense is that he is no longer salvageable. The gamble that was the castling has failed.... What is the point of expending political capital to get on within the Putin system, if in fact the Putin system might not last long and when he himself doesn't seem to have any great vigor or vision?"

It's a tricky game, because Putin is still very much in charge and is tightening his grip. Open disloyalty is dangerous.

But at the same time, the tectonic plates of Russian politics are are rumbling with no sign of the turbulence abating. And everybody is naturally scrambling, hedging, and tap dancing like mad to make sure they land on solid ground when all the dust finally settles.

Everybody is being forced to be a political entrepreneur in a high-stakes political futures market.

The two most obvious examples are Kudrin and Surkov. Both served the Putin system and both were instrumental in making it appear successful during his heady first stint in the Kremlin.

As finance minister, Kudrin made sure the budget was balanced and the macroeconomics stable -- even amid mind-bending corruption. His skills, along with record-high oil prices, enabled Putin to buy off a critical mass of the population with rising living standards -- and the whole elite with a license to steal.

And as the Kremlin's chief ideologist, Surkov was Putin's mythmaker-in-chief, conjuring up his vision of "sovereign democracy," with its fake parties and pseudopluralism, that gave his authoritarian rule the aura of popular legitimacy.

Both, in their own ways, are now repositioning themselves as advocates of economic modernization and political pluralism.

But they're not the only ones. Aleksei Chesnakov, resigned last week as deputy secretary of the ruling United Russia party's General Council last week, criticizing the party's democratic deficit.

"I disagree with some of United Russia's lawmaking activity, particularly with regard to media and Internet regulation," Chesnakov, a close ally of Surkov's, told the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets."

"Furthermore, the majority of draft laws are not discussed with the party and regional structures at all; there was not a full discussion."

Mikhail Rostovsky, "Moskovsky komsomolets'" chief political analyst, mocked Chesnakov's move in a recent column.

"Bravo, O Heroic Democrat Mr. Chesnakov! Finally there has appeared someone to open our eyes," Rostovsky wrote. "And we'd never even realized that under Surkov apparently, it was all different. The authorities didn't try to excessively regulate the media and the Internet back then."

Rostovsky concludes by asking: " Why do Russian bureaucrats only acquire democratic views then they are ‘served for lunch' to other officials?"

Indeed, former Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov has flipped and flopped from the regime to the opposition and back again over the past year or so. Like Kudrin, Prokhorov has been flirting with both the Kremlin and the opposition.

Even the siloviki are not immune from playing this game. Remember the speculation that Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov was angling to be Putin's successor?

Speaking on the Power Vertical podcast, Galeotti noted that most siloviki would prefer the status quo to remain in place and be reset to, say, 2006 or 2007 -- the mythologized time of high Putinism. But if things go south, they are "positioning themselves so that they will be the kingmakers" and "make sure they are in a position to pick the next guy."

And as Sean Guillory of the Univeersity of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted on the same podcast, all this bobbing and weaving is a recipe for instability.

"If it is the case that people are jockeying for their post-Putin lives, it really shows how fractious and how splintered the elite is. They're not looking at the present or tomorrow. They're looking at years beyond," Guillory said.

"And what is happening while they are looking at themselves and not governing the country? The political situation is in complete stasis. The economy is going down the tubes... When the Deep State begins to look within itself and concentrates on the rivalries within it, the country is left floating on the sea and is aimless."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on May 31, where I will discuss the issues raised on this blog with my co-hosts.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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