Somehow, the autumn has so far failed us, those who expected seismic changes to happen in Russian politics as a consequence of the local and regional elections and/or the debate on next year’s budget. What we have seen so far caused some disappointment in those who had wanted to see the non-systemic opposition achieve a regional breakthrough. All the more, considering that the system itself has not stopped to rot at all. This continuous and virtually motionless stalemate has yet again prompted Russian media and Russia-watchers alike to try to figure out where the man in the middle, Vladimir Putin is heading. I will argue that what we have seen now are Putin’s first risky steps to distance himself from the system he created. Due to the large number of variables in the equation, though, it won’t be an easy ride.
In my understanding, there are two important, parallel processes going on in the higher echelons of Russian politics. One of these, building a new ideology is intentional. The second one, the crackdown on the opposition is less so, and has to do with the changing inner structure of the decision-making mechanism within the elite.
Mark Galeotti asked in an excellent note lately whether Putin was more of a tactician or a strategist. A couple of months ago I would have argued that Putin was behaving more like a tactician. Especially because I think that in order to have a firm strategy you need to have a firm goal, a mission, if not an ideology, and as I tried to argue in August, Putin has lost his official ideology and had to rethink his personal incentives to adapt them to a changing set of circumstances. Now, however, in a bit of a contrast to what Mark had to say on the issue, I have started to see a pattern in a series of events, which are otherwise indeed chaotic. Changing circumstances are not all connected, of course, nonetheless, they do form a certain picture. As I argued in my previous note, I suspect that the ultimate goal is for Putin to move away from the system and assume a role which is more fitting for a fairly popular politician in an increasingly pluralistic society with an increasingly divided elite. This would require a centrally supervised but fairly autonomous system of political competition within and outside the elite on the one hand, and some new ideological narrative to explain the Putin 2.0 on the other hand.
To me, the recent rumours about the creation of a group within the Presidential Administration to come up with some sort of a new ideology. the actual creation of an agency under the Presidential Administration, charged with „strengthening the patriotic base of the Russian nation” as well as an “office of public projects” headed by Pavel Zenkovic as well as the upcoming congress of the All-Russian Popular Front next spring are a move in this direction.
Two weeks ago in Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast, Kirill Kobrin made an interesting observation and drew parallels between the present state of the Russian elite and the tsar Alexander III. Kirill mentioned the ’freezing’ of an increasingly ’rotten’ Russian state to be the usual medicine for situations like the present one.
We all remember 2007-08 when Putin tried to handle an increasingly competitive elite, the infighting of Sechin’s and Cherkesov’s siloviki by strengthening the role of his inner ’Politburo’, that is, the set of people that beared an unquestionable loyalty to him only. However, those people (i.e. Alexei Kudrin, Vladislav Surkov and Dmitry Medvedev) are largely gone, about to be gone or are at least not that close by now, and the nature of elite competition has changed, it has become more politic than only resource-centered. Not that actual things themselves have changed so much. Law-enforcement is still a siloviki bastion, justice hasn’t really moved away from the direction where Medvedev and his associates wanted to take it. Yes, energy policy is a battleground, but in economic policy Kudrin’s heritage still strongly prevails, despite the disputes around Putin’s redistributive social initiatives. But it just doesn’t seem to work any more. Putin’s close associates, his ’spin doctors’ cannot mitigate clashes enough any more, and officials themselves are increasingly irritated when they are required to obey orders – ukazy – from above (see the case of Oleg Govorun, the first minister to leave Medvedev’s government). At the same time, a couple of dangerously ’too big to fail’ elements, like Igor Sechin and Alexander Bastrykin have surfaced in the system, with no comparable liberal counterparts.
Under such circumstances, as I’ve argued before, Putin’s best bet is to freeze his own position within the rotting system, thereby trying to conserve most of it. In short, what Brian and other astute Russia-watchers have called ’the siloviki getting let loose’ is actually a structural change within the system whereby Putin lets different factions play it out among themselves, hopes to create a suitable environment for this to happen, while he himself distancing himself into a new, ’ideological’ position, one that he has been lacking in the past couple of years. This would also help redefining Putin’s role in the system.
The problem with leaving officials to go their own way is that most of them will rarely know the boundaries of their authority. One recent example for this is the case of Leonid Razvozzhaev which shows perfectly how Soviet-era reflexes and overzealous officials can countermand an otherwise workable way of thinking. It is pretty obvious that the authorities have recently decided to rough up the left-wing opposition. They probably see a potential in them to get popular where liberals cannot (at the countryside and among the impoverished – shortly: ’Russia B’), so they have picked exactly the kind of false pretext that a fair shair of this kind of people will probably believe (Sergey Udaltsov plotting against Russia with Georgian authorities). However ridiculous it might be, the propaganda machine of the authorities is still working (as Kirill also pointed out in the PV podcast).
They are also aware that Udaltsov is not one of the most popular opposition leaders among the present supporters of the opposition movements. He finished a mere 20th at the election of the Coordinating Council, and according to a recent VTsIOM poll, he is indeed popular with only a very specific group. This doesn’t mean of course that liberals and nationalists would not speak up for him, but they will certainly not go head over heels to make a hero out of him. After all, Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot are heros only to a well-defined group as well. On the other hand, kidnapping and threatening an opposition official is indeed something that symbolises exactly the opposition’s common case against the authorities and will both create a hero and reinforce the image of an anti-hero.
If Putin cannot or does not want to weigh in to dismiss some abusive officials, the only way for him is indeed to go upwards and try to get ’frozen’. He must do it carefully, though: we’re not in the era in Alexander III any more. In the 21st century systems that freeze will usually melt down or require a restart after a while.