Putin’s ever-shrinking circle shows a return to Soviet politics

Russia’s search for greater international influence and respect continued its downward spiral this summer. Its Olympic experience was spoiled by charges of doping. Accusations of hacking dragged it into the U.S. presidential campaign, and military tensions over Ukraine and Syria showed no sign of abetting.

By William E. Pomeranz

All this clamor and controversy is overshadowing Russia’s impending September 18 parliamentary elections. This might be exactly what President Vladimir Putin wants, however. The Duma elections five years ago sparked unprecedented protests over fraud and Putin’s unilateral decision to return to the presidency. He has been clamping down ever since.

But though electoral competition remains tightly controlled, elite competition is increasingly played out in the open. A changing of the guard is underway in Russia. It is occurring via presidential decree, however, not elections. Such an opaque process produces plenty of intrigue and speculation. What it lacks is real political options for voters and a chance for genuine change.

Reading the Russian tea leaves is a growth industry. But even among all the comings and goings, certain trends have become apparent.  Most notably, the people who built Putin’s system are on their way out, replaced by people of the system.

This may be a subtle distinction, yet it is a crucial one. The older generation brought a combination of intelligence, street smarts and toughness that was essential for surviving in the highly competitive, often chaotic, post-Soviet environment. In contrast, their replacements have only known the relative stability of the Putin years and remain largely untested in times of crisis. Their inexperience may yet come to the forefront.

Putin himself has made high-profile personnel changes in his administration, which culminated with the unexpected August 12 dismissal of his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. He was able to leave with his reputation largely intact, though: Ivanov retained his seat on the Russian Security Council.

Others have been less fortunate. Andrei Belianinov, the head of the Federal Customs Service, for example, was forced to resign after police found almost $900,000 in cash in his possession.

In addition to these departures, Putin is holding other long-time confidants at arms’ length. Igor Sechin, the chairman of the oil giant Rosneft, was informed on several occasions that his company could not bid on the privatization of the oil company Bashneft. But he refused to take no for an answer. The Bashneft privatization was just canceled, largely due to political infighting. Because the Russian state desperately needs the revenue, however, talk has resumed about selling off some of its Rosneft shares. This is something Sechin has adamantly opposed.

Another longstanding Putin ally, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, recently returned from years of self-imposed exile to prepare a new economic strategy for the Kremlin. The ink was barely dry on his initial proposal, however, when Putin announced that he was commissioning an alternative report; Kudrin was pushed back to the margins.

As the old guard moves on, sometimes “voluntarily,” other times in disgrace, Putin has replaced them with younger, more loyal functionaries, primarily from the security services but also from his personal entourage. The acting governors of Kaliningrad and Tula are former Putin bodyguards. The new head of the presidential administration, Anton Vaino, came from Putin’s protocol office.

These internal personnel battles have been accompanied by public clashes among Russia’s law enforcement and security services. The FSB recently arrested a prominent criminal investigator on corruption charges – a highly provocative act. Investigators and prosecutors are also in open disagreement over the detention of a leading businessman. The equivalent would be if the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Justice Department were deliberately trying to discredit each other on the front pages of the New York Times.

All this intrigue may be a bonanza for Kremlinology, but it highlights what is glaringly absent from Russia’s public debate: genuine politics. Economic policy, government appointments and fighting corruption are all issues that should be discussed as part of the continuing Duma election campaign, yet not a word is heard. Open political debate is far too threatening for Putin and his inner circle.

In addition, Putin’s new cadre of bureaucrats is absolutely dependent on the Russian president. Such insularity can only produce an echo chamber, not candid debate. One wonders if there is anyone left who can deliver bad news to Putin.

While the bureaucracy can produce countless numbers of draft economic programs, the people in charge lack a clear mandate to implement these reforms. The necessary political cover can only come from a direct presidential order or from an election. So far, Putin has failed to approve either course.

Putin has appointed loyalists and functionaries, not reformers or visionaries. The cold shoulder just given to Kudrin is emblematic of a regime that is happy to play one side against the other, but unwilling to pursue essential structural change.

These trends point to continued stagnation, which is probably the best-case scenario for the Russian economy and Putin’s political system. The Duma elections may yet produce a surprise, as in 2011. But that appears ever more unlikely.

Instead, Russia may well have to relearn a lesson that many thought had been definitively learned 25 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union: Elite competition is no substitute for real politics.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William E. Pomeranz is deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. This article was first published at Reuters.
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