They're back! After months of election campaigns, street protests, and civic activism that temporarily put the authorities on the defensive, the fabled Kremlin clans -- whose machinations and intrigue long defined the epicenter of Russian politics -- appeared to fade into the background.
But with Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency and the protest movement losing steam, clan warfare is back in vogue and back in the spotlight. And naturally, the first battle, the one that will set the stage for future skirmishes, is over the composition of the government.
Putin and lame-duck President Dmitry Medvedev huddled this week in Sochi to hash out the future cabinet's structure and composition. Back in Moscow, meanwhile, as journalist Konstantin Gaaze writes in the daily "Vedomosti
," key figures in the ruling elite are sharpening their knives in an effort "to weaken their enemies and strengthen their own positions."
According to Gaaze, three factions are struggling for influence: a liberal-technocratic one centered around Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and his allies in the Finance and Economic Development ministries; a statist grouping led by Deputy Prime Minister and uber-silovik Igor Sechin; and an anti-Western clan headed by nationalist Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
Shuvalov's clan naturally favors the modernization agenda Medvedev championed (at least rhetorically) during his presidency: mass privatization and a dismantling of the state capitalism that was prevalent during Putin's first two terms in the Kremlin. The technocrats can, no doubt, count on support from former Finance Minister and close Putin confidant Aleksei Kudrin
, who announced this week that he plans to establish a new foundation to push for economic reform.
Sechin's group, of course, seeks to preserve the state capitalist system and "stands for a return to 2007" and a "continuation of the economic model interrupted by Medvedev's presidency." The statists have fought fiercely -- and will continue to fight -- to prevent the privatization of the energy sector. They can count on the backing of "industrial ministers, the heads of state companies, and leaders of regions that depend on state companies." (They will also likely have a powerful ally in Kremlin chief of staff and KGB veteran Sergei Ivanov.)
The third faction, led by Rogozin, is new and a bit of an enigma, as Gaaze writes:
Put in charge of the bulky and obsolete military-industrial complex, Rogozin cannot boast too many allies within the cabinet or even of control over the Defense Ministry. And yet, his activeness in politics (something that was clearly authorized by Putin) makes him difficult to dismiss. In any event, Rogozin symbolizes a new anti-American faction within the upper echelons of state power, a faction that is of paramount importance for Putin himself. If Putin's campaign rhetoric is any indication, this faction's administrative weight and clout are bound to increase greatly.
But the most important role Rogozin's clan will play, according to the "Vedomosti" report, will be that of a foil, preventing either of the other two from becoming dominant and preserving Putin's role as Russia's indispensible man
and ultimate power broker
Should this arrangement of forces remain unchanged within Medvedev's cabinet, Putin will certainly be pleased. He cannot wish for anything better. Alliances -- even tactical -- between the factions are essentially impossible. Rogozin and Sechin hate each other. The liberals will never ally themselves with Sechin, no more than they will with Rogozin.
Steering things to this end and making Medvedev the premier despite his apparent inability to remain above the battle (and that battles will be fought in a government such as this goes without saying), Putin clearly means to remain the supreme arbiter. Among other things, it will spare him formation of an opposition to his political course which is not even clearly formulated yet.
This all assumes, of course, that the government's current structure and composition will remain more or less unchanged. And according to a report in the Russian edition of "Forbes"
this week, that may be a faulty assumption.
According to the "Forbes" report, Sechin will leave the cabinet and probably take a post in the Kremlin. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu
and Transportation Minister Igor Levitin are also slated to depart the government, accroding to another report in "Forbes" citing unidentified Kremlin sources. Moreover, Medvedev is pushing for structural changes -- like merging the Transportation and Industry ministries into a new Infrastructure Ministry -- that could throw the current clan structure off-kilter.
It is still not clear how much leeway Putin is prepared to give Medvedev, whether he is interested at all in the outgoing president's modernization agenda, or even how long -- or even if -- Medvedev will be prime minister.
Preserving the informal system of competing clans is comfortable territory for Putin. But as Gaaze writes in "Vedomost," it may be counterproductive in the new political environment in which he must now govern:
Behaving in 2012 the way he behaved in 2004, Putin tends to remain blind to the political and economic risks that accompany his comeback. A government torn by strife and rivalries is good (for the national leader, that is) when the economic situation is cloudless and when the national leader remains above the fray and is himself popular. It becomes a cumbersome political liability otherwise.
-- Brian Whitmore