One of Vladimir Putin's keys to accumulating and hanging onto power has always been his status as the indispensable inside man
-- the undisputed power broker among Russia's powerful Kremlin clans. But is this still the case?
Since his ascendancy over a decade ago, Putin designed and presided over a system of managed conflict
within the elite in which various Kremlin clans and groups competed against each other -- sometimes fiercely -- for influence, access, and resources.
Putin kept control over the system by being a trusted arbiter who kept everything in rough balance. He was able to do this because while the clans tended to deeply distrust each other, they all trusted Putin. And the assumption was that without him, the various groupings would start fighting among themselves and bring the whole system crashing down.
That system worked fine when the conflicts were over little more than who gets what.
Putin was easily able to manage the so-called "siloviki war" of 2007
, a nasty conflict between two factions of security service veterans in his inner circle who were vying for power, influence, and access to state resources. Likewise, Putin was able to successfully mediate the battle over who would get control of oil giant Yukos' assets after Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003.
Conflicts over assets, property, and resources still exist today, and always will. But the fundamental fault line in the Russian elite today is about something much more fundamental: What kind of state will Russia be and how will it be governed?
Oligarch and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov made this crystal clear in a recent interview with Chrystia Freeland, global editor at large for Reuters. (An article based on the interview appeared in "The New York Times
" last week.)
The Kremlin is not, like, one person or two people -- there are wings, liberal wings and conservative wings. It’s an ongoing fight between them. This is the nature of Russia right now, that even within the parties, within the government, in the Kremlin, we have these wings. So it is a fight between the liberal and conservative wings: What is the future of Russia?
The conservative wing -- which is dominated by the siloviki clan and its informal leader, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin -- is "very cynical" and "needs stability at any price," he said.
Prokhorov added that "they are ready to pay any price, even instead of future development. They are afraid of competition; they are afraid of development.”
The liberal wing, informally led by former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, believes that “the era of managed democracy is over," according to Prokhorov, who is himself an adjunct member of that faction.
“I think that the liberal part of the elite is bigger and bigger from day to day, because I have a lot of calls from different levels, and they really express their support for my candidacy,” Prokhorov said. “We now have all the pieces in place to move very fast to being a real democratic country.”
Moreover, with the protest movement showing no sign of losing steam, there's now a new player in this game -- the Russian street. And key members of the technocratic faction (I am still not willing to call them "liberals") like Kudrin and Prokhorov have been actively courting their support.
Is Putin capable of being an honest and impartial broker in this dispute? Or are key members of the elite already hedging their bets and preparing for a post-Putin era?
Also speaking to Reuters' Chrystia Freeland, chess champion and longtime opposition figure Garry Kasparov
says he thinks they are:
It is all about the balance of power within the ruling elite, because now they all understand, if Putin goes, maybe 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of those who are surrounding him and making this core of the elite, they will be facing trial; they can lose money. But most of them — 80 percent at least, maybe more — will be making deals with the new government. Maybe giving up some money, but securing their fortunes. If they go into oppressive mode, then the numbers will change and any revolutionary explosion will blow them up.
During our discussion for the most recent Power Vertical podcast
, New York University professor Mark Galeotti, author of the highly recommended "In Moscow's Shadows
" blog, made a similar point. Galeotti said much of the elite -- Prokhorov included -- are playing both sides at the moment.
Prokhorov, like so many actors within the current Russian elite, is at once telling the Kremlin that he is playing the Kremlin game while keeping one eye on potential endgames, potential other outcomes," Galeotti said. "Everyone is a political entrepreneur in their own right in the current situation because nobody knows what is going to happen."
Not exactly the best environment in which to be the ultimate inside man.
-- Brian Whitmore