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The 'Cold War' In The Kremlin


A gun salute is held outside the Kremlin during President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony on May 7.

A gun salute is held outside the Kremlin during President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony on May 7.

One front in the struggle for Russia was visible in Moscow last weekend as tens of thousands of protesters marched through the capital carrying balloons and placards as thousands of riot police armed with batons and assault weapons looked on.

The ratio of police to protesters, longtime Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti wrote on his blog "In Moscow's Shadows," was "distinctly higher than in other, recent protests" and appears to be indicative of "a nervous Kremlin."

But it's more than just the ongoing clash with opposition forces that is making the ruling elite jittery these days. What is truly causing sleepless nights is the "second front," the one where Russia's future will likely be decided -- the elite's war with itself.

And with reports of an impending government shake-up and of deep, enduring, and hardening splits in the Kremlin administration, signals abound that this longstanding intra-elite "cold war" could go hot at any time.

One aspect of this intramural struggle is simply a naked battle for power and a clash of political ambitions. Another is a heated debate over which tactics -- sticks or carrots -- would best tame the Russian Street and keep the current elite safely in power.

But part of the schism is also ideological, with part of the elite believing that increased pluralism -- albeit managed -- is necessary in a rapidly changing society and another faction seeking to revive the tough authoritarianism that marked President Vladimir Putin's first stint in the Kremlin.

For the time being, those seeking to turn the clock back to 2007 appear to be winning. A series of tough laws cracking down on dissent have been passed. Dissidents like Pussy Riot and defectors like Gennady Gudkov are being dealt with. And the tepid reforms Dmitry Medvedev ushered in during his presidency are being rolled back.

But what is also becoming clear is the model of governance Putin constructed over the past decade, in which he controlled the elite by playing the role of the indispensible arbiter of its warring clans, has -- to say the least -- lost its effectiveness.

"It is this model of statecraft that has now entered a crisis...[Putin's] system of rule, if the not the system itself, shows sign of exhaustion," Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian politics at the University of Kent, wrote in Opendemocracy.net.

"Putin's return has destabilized the system that he so assiduously created, although in formal terms matters continue much as before."

The Artist And The Bureaucrat

One focal point of the struggle within the elite is the fierce rivalry between Putin's former chief ideologist and political manager, Vladislav Surkov, and the man who succeeded him, Vyacheslav Volodin.

In the most recent edition of the Power Vertical podcast, my co-host Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service astutely noted that Surkov approached the job like an "artist" while Volodin behaves more like a "post-Soviet bureaucrat."

In practice this means that Surkov's approach to the regime's opponents was to charm, cajole, hoodwink, and -- wherever possible -- to co-opt them. Volodin's is to run them over and whack them over the head with a baseball bat.

Surkov also stayed very tuned in to prevailing social forces and understood that as Russian society became more complex, differentiated, and affluent, the political system needed to create outlets to accommodate the emerging pluralism. Failure to do so would lead to political unrest of the sort we are seeing now.

He reportedly was pushing for Medvedev to remain president for a second term to complete his program of political and economic modernization, with Putin of course remaining firmly in control behind the scenes.

Surkov was also pushing for a form of "managed pluralism" in the State Duma, with United Russia sharing power with a broader constellation of obedient and housebroken "opposition" parties.

With the announcement a year ago that Putin was returning to the presidency and Medvedev would become prime minister, it, of course, became clear that Surkov had lost that argument. Months later, after the December 2011 parliamentary elections, he also lost his Kremlin job and was ultimately replaced by his archrival, Volodin.

Down but not out, Surkov ended up as chief of staff of Medvedev's government. He's no longer running the political show, but he still has numerous loyalists in the Kremlin (despite Volodin's efforts to purge them), in the media, and throughout the bureaucracy.

The conventional wisdom is that he is gathering his forces, biding his time, and waiting for Volodin's strategy to fail

"Slava has taken a break, but this game is not over. They are waiting for the [Kremlin] staff's chosen strategy to lead it into an impasse," an unidentified Kremlin official told Gazeta.ru.

Shareholders And Managers

Surkov was one of the key architects of Putin's authoritarian system and his push for greater pluralism was driven by pragmatism more than by principle.

As I have blogged in the past, the upper echelons of the Russian elite are largely comprised of shareholders who control resources and are collecting rents from the system, and managers who owe their position in the elite to their specific technical skills.

Surkov and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin are managers. And as specialists, respectively, in political and economic management they understood the system had to change, modernize, and become more pluralistic. Their goal was not democracy, but rather to preserve the system by reforming it.

Political managers like Surkov understood that the fledgling middle class would rebel in the face of continued authoritarian rule. And economic stewards like Kudrin understood that economic modernization required a degree of political liberalization.

Shareholders like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Putin cronies Gennady Timchenko and Yury Kovalchuk, on the other hand, opposed opening the system up because they feared that any change would threaten their continued access to rents, their position in the elite, and -- possibly -- their freedom.

The shareholders won this argument, which engulfed the elite during the latter stages of the Medvedev presidency, and their victory was evident at the September 24, 2011, United Russia congress when Putin's return to the Kremlin was announced.

But their victory has turned out to be pyrrhic. The rebellion Surkov and other political managers like former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky expected has come to pass. And with Putin's return, economic modernization appears to be off the agenda, which could have dire consequences as it leaves Russia dangerously dependent on commodities exports.

And now, Pavlovsky says, they are in a bind. "They have no follow-up step," he told Gazeta.ru. "They cannot endlessly adopt ever-new emergency laws and they cannot suppress all liberal media."

Siloviki And Civiliki

Meanwhile, it is quickly becoming conventional wisdom that a government shake-up is coming this fall and that Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika will be one of the top officials to lose his job.

The leading candidate to replace Chaika, according to a recent report in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," is Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak. But a second name being floated is Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov, who is Medvedev's old law-school classmate -- an association that many officials believe will ultimately disqualify him.

"Konovalov's position is weaker because he is perceived by many people as a member of Medvedev's team," an unidentified Kremlin source told the daily.

Konovalov was the most high-profile of the so-called "civiliki," or officials with backgrounds in civil law, that Medvedev either appointed or promoted during his presidency. Many of them studied or taught alongside him at the law faculty of St. Petersburg State University in the 1990s.

Other high-level figures include Konstantin Chuichenko, who heads the Kremlin's Central Control Directorate; Nikolai Vinnichenko, the presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District; Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Gutsan; and Moscow Arbitration Court Chairwoman Valeria Adamova.

During his presidency, Medvedev was using the civiliki as a counterweight to the siloviki, the security-service veterans like Sechin and Sergei Ivanov who surround Putin.

As Medvedev's star faded after Putin's return to the Kremlin, the civiliki's influence of course faded. But they are still present throughout the bureaucracy.

"Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration," prominent Moscow-based sociologist and expert on the Russian elite Olga Kryshtanovskaya told "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

"The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term."

They are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. "Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition," Kryshtanovskaya said

The Decider

And what about the man in the middle of it all?

Writing in Opendemocracy.net, Kent University's Richard Sakwa notes that while on one hand "Putin is back," on the other "the country and the political system have evolved."

A continued "tightening of the screws would cause the system to lose " whatever remains of the inner resources of dynamism and renewal" and "play into the hands of those many voices now predicting the decline and fall of the regime," he writes.

Sakwa argues, however, that there is still time to change course. "The third Putin term may yet see a new synthesis emerge. A positive reinvention of Russian political order requires an act of unprecedented leadership and political imagination," he writes.

Color me skeptical on that, at least for the time being.

In a recent interview with Gazeta.ru, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky succinctly contextualized the hard-line Kremlin attitude that has prevailed since Putin's third term began in May.

"This is a series of measures aimed at bringing reality into line with Vladimir Putin's psychological state," Belkovsky said.

"Putin wants everything around him to be stable. He is also hurt and offended that he is being accused of all sorts of crimes and that the opposition does not appreciate the concessions he made on things like the election of mayors and governors and easing the rules on party registration."

If real political change comes at this point, it will likely be despite Putin, not because of him. it will result from a combination of pressure from the Russian Street and the resolution of the "cold war" within the elite in favor of those advocating greater pluralism.

-- Brian Whitmore

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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