Monday, August 29, 2016

The Power Vertical

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
"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

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 "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, 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, 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

Tags: Russian politics,Russian opposition,Russian elite

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Comment Sorting
by: Mark from: Victoria
September 21, 2012 18:03
My, yes; Stanislav Belkovsky. I was just wondering the other day where that adorable little fatboy had gone - and when he might pop up, having reinvented himself yet again. Now he's back to being a political analyst. The supermarket must have let him go.

Cast your memory back, back to when Stanislav Belkovsky was whipping western media sources into a feeding frenzy with his titillating tales of Kremlin Konfidential insider confessions - such as that Vladimir Putin was easily the richest man in Europe, having appropriated billions and inserted himself as ghost majority shareholder in state oil companies. According to Belkovsky - and breathlessly relayed by serial chowderhead Luke Harding in The Guardian - Putin personally controlled at least 75% of Gunvor through a sweetheart deal with his pal, Gennady Timchenko.

But then, something went wrong. The Economist wrote a saucy piece entitled, "Grease My Palm", in which they drew a number of conclusions based on Belkovsky's figures. Gennady Timchenko threatened to sue. And The Economist retracted everything. You know they would never have done that if they had any evidence at all which would support their claims.

Later, in a bizarre display of meandering nutjobbery, Belkovsky angrily cut his ties with the opposition, describing them as "lying, swinish and insincere"

and, incredibly, offering his services to Vladimir Putin in exchange for his pardon. He even claimed to have a canister of napalm and a grenade launcher at his dacha, which he would use in Putin's service if called upon.

Yeah. I'd be taking him seriously. What? No, sorry; I was laughing at something else.
In Response

by: chung
September 21, 2012 21:19
yes, yes, long character attacks on a minor element in a long essay -- are you still pretending not to be a Kremlin flack?
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 23, 2012 20:59
Mark, you realize that nothing of what you said means that Belkovsky's opinion on the current situation is wrong, don't you?

He may be right, he may be wrong. Just like my Russian father-in-law also may be right or wrong. Only time will tell.

It's interesting to think that, rather than discussing the analysis, people think it easier to attack the person who is making them. Shouldn't assertions, arguments, claims, etc. stand or fall by themselves, regardless of who is making them?
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
September 24, 2012 19:06
Why, yes; that's true. Belkovsky could be right on a yes/no question as easily as flipping a coin could result in a correct answer. What I am trying to show is that anyone who pays Belkovsky for political analysis is wasting their money, as his facts in the past have been demonstrably fabricated and he shifts his loyalties according to his perception of what is best for himself - then tailors his narrative to fit his perceptions.

But as far as anyone being solicited for an opinion and their chances of being right, I guess what you say is true; they could be correct, and their background as a fraud or a liar might not impact their opinion at all - might I say, that's a very refreshing attitude. If you asked Nick Leeson for advice on investing, what you got could be an extremely accurate opinion, even though his trading practices did cause the collapse of Barings Bank. You'd think they'd have seen that coming, considering he was unable to get a broker's license in the UK because of fraud on his application, but maybe they just thought everyone deserves a chance at a fresh start, as you do.

So I suppose when Belkovsky proffers opinions on the political situation that he could only have gotten directly from Vladimir Putin or one of his closest confidantes ("Putin is hurt and offended..."), the fact that he previously claimed to have deep-cover Kremlin inside sources who fed him details of Putin's Billions and it all turned out to be nonsense likely should not be part of the decision-making process.
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 25, 2012 04:10
Well, sure. I see you don't like Belkovsky, and you think he has a good chance of being wrong. OK. So be it. Not that most analysts and pundits pretty much anywhere fare much better -- I usually don't hold my breath to see if their predictions turn out to be true...

by: Ben
September 21, 2012 18:26
In the body of the Russian "kasha" where si-viliki-loviki bother with each other and changes,by the author opinion are connected with the age we can wait for alterations when some of these viki will die out.

by: david neuman from: ojai, california
September 21, 2012 18:52
"Pay no attention to that anti-ballistic missile shield behind the silver curtain, Dorothy."
If you listed a dozen more psychological theories about what animates Putin and The Russian elite, but still did not describe Bush's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, you would be just as wide of the mark.

"Russia threatens preemptive strike over planned US missile shield(May 3, 2012)"

"Russia to build 100-ton ICBM to penetrate US missile defenses. (Dec 21, 2011)"

The arms race is back. What do you think about that? With Americans still falling through the safety net, are we now going to spend money we don't have on new weapon systems in Europe. With budget deficits of over a trillion dollars per annum, including $400 billion just for interest on the national debt, who will fund this American Folly? The Fed?

The First Cold War ended by "beggar thy neighbor." The second one will end with "beggar thy neighbor's currency."

In Response

by: William from: Aragon
September 24, 2012 23:01
David, you ask "who will fund this American Folly?" China. While the US administration bailed out private banks for $1.5 trillion dollars, China spent the same building high-speed rail links between its major cities. While the US engaged in wars of adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years with no real outcome, China continued to build its economy unabated. While the administration dreams of global domination, her competitors stengthen. It is time she woke up.

by: Alex from: LA
September 22, 2012 00:33
I watched Russian news and they showed this so called thousands of people was not more than thousands, and organizers said the momentum is lost, Putin is game over. RFE/RL or US always demonizes actions of countries it wants resources out of, stop this BS propaganda please it makes us, USA look bad.
In Response

by: concerned citizen from: somewhere
September 22, 2012 10:06
Right on Alex, US ruling elite/policy makers would love nothing more than see the old enemy, Russia, capitulate and break up along ethnic and religious lines. In eyes of US, Russia has always been the biggest long term threat, and with emasculation and fragmentation of it, nothing would stand in the way of complete US geopolitical hegemony. Its comical how the ruling elite in US continue to hide behind a thin Vail of democracy when videos are streaming on youtube showing violent suppression of peaceful street protests, police brutality, blatant widespread voter fraud in recent republican nomination, increasing gap between poor and rich, continued expansion of wars of aggression overseas, torture, arrest without warrants and indefinite detention of their citizens and here they are chastising Russia/Iran/China on daily basis...Their entire political system is based on bribery of those in charge by interest groups and lobbyist with principles and morals up for the highest bidder, with a propaganda machine hard at work brain washing and passivising the masses. They are rapidly losing their legitimacy and the land of the free is becoming nothing but a long expired dream....
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
September 24, 2012 22:55
Well said, not to mention that US citizens will shortly get to vote for the Repulocrat duopoly again, with no real other choice - two faces of the same coin. The "establishment" that runs the country wonders why it is loosing influence across the globe.
In Response

by: Ben
September 22, 2012 12:08
chung! You are right,but sometimes they act stright. So called "Anonimous" resently declared here that he knows personally the names of the Russian "SVR agents".That is the old tradition of the Western opinion enfluence by Kremlin.RFE sponsors.
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 23, 2012 21:03
How's that? The thousands were only thousands? Maybe you meant to say something else?

That the media have some sort of "bias" (or political orientation, or whatever you want to call it) stands to reason. The Russian news you watched were also biased, and I'm sure they chose shots that would make the protesters look less important than they were (just as RFERL tends to make them moore important than they are).

If you're smart, you'll watch BOTH news sources, knowing in what direction they tend to exaggerate, then you'll do the math, and end up with some idea of what may really be going on.

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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