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The Power Vertical

Requiem For A Power Broker?

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks at a Forum of the Peoples in the southern Russian city of Kislovodsk on January 23.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks at a Forum of the Peoples in the southern Russian city of Kislovodsk on January 23.
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

Tags: protests,Vladimir Putin,Kremlin clans

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
January 23, 2012 20:18
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
January 24, 2012 22:33
...this is analysis run amok. "New Government..." -- what! Every poll, even those taken by organizations (like Levada) hostile to Putin, shows him way ahead of any rivals for March. This seems a sort of wish fulfillment kind of thing on the part fo the author...


by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 24, 2012 02:15
Not sure exactly what you implied by the title. Power is a potent drug, but having been a serious user for more than the past decade, I’m pretty sure that VVP can handle another six years. Nor do I necessarily agree with your power-broker analogy. Given the vertical nature of the system and Russia’s tsarist traditions, VVP strikes me as being largely independent, capable of creating an entirely new set of court boyars should the situation call for it. While making predictions about Russia’s political future is sheer folly, I can see Putin sitting comfortably in the Kremlin until at least 2018.
In Response

by: Alex from: LA
January 24, 2012 08:17
You got everything right except "until at least 2018."

Knowing Russian tradition of politics and power, Putin will be ruling RF until he dies. No matter what title he will give himself, like President, VP, then President, then door man at Kremlin, then House Keeper of Kremlin... Whatever it is he will control all of it, just like he has been since he became the vice president. Politicians everywhere are professional posers. Like many Russians say: "There is no better choice than him, if we elect someone else he will be robbing the country too, at least Putin and his goons are feed and have enough money, so they won't steal as much as the new leader and his goons would."

Foreign governments want to weaken Russia so they can gain access to their natural resources and reduced their domestic prices of gas/oil, and rob Russian people in that way, at least RF is strong enough to keep the Western Wolves away from russian hunting grounds, so their own packs can feed on all the sheep in RF.

It's sad. It will so until future generation of Russian citizens wises up and creates good quality leaders that this will be the case in Russia, including in Western countries where the posers are even more poser-er than in Russia.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
January 24, 2012 09:43
"Foreign governments want to weaken Russia so they can gain access to their natural resources and reduced their domestic prices of gas/oil, and rob Russian people in that way, at least RF is strong enough to keep the Western Wolves away from russian hunting grounds, so their own packs can feed on all the sheep in RF"

This is utter nonsense! It is completely manufactured to distract attention from Russia's desire to control ALL of Europe's energy resources. Those Western Wolves you speak of don't include the world's largest energy company...G-A-Z-P-R-O-M, who wants to build gas/oil pipelines to the US through Alaska. Please don't forget that we Americans are gas-sufficient, and could be oil-sufficient if there were more political will in Washington. We don't need Russian energy resources!
In Response

by: Anonymous
January 24, 2012 21:58
you suck oil from Arab
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
January 25, 2012 20:19
And you suck far worse things than oil! Check the stats, America gets most of its oil from itself and its neighbors (Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, etc.). China gets more oil from Arab world than USA does.

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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