Would Vladimir Putin be willing to admit large-scale electoral fraud in order to call early elections and redraw the political map of Russia? Would he be willing to sacrifice key deputies from the United Russia party, accusing them with corruption, in order to ease the tension within the Russian society? Some might say yes: the recent series of scandals related to senior United Russia deputies and last week’s publication of a report by a think tank sponsored by a close ally of Putin, the head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, claiming that the governing party would have in fact finished second in 2011 without large-scale riggings both increase the possibility of early Duma elections. Furthermore, the adoption of a brand new electoral law is underway, a development which points in the same direction. But are these developments parts of a giant political plan or do we rather see two or three different political narratives in increasingly fierce competition? If the latter is true, the Russian elite have been thrown dangerously off balance.
The rebirth of the clans
The general idea about the post-Medvedev elite system has been that no clear-cut clans exist anymore. Instead, members of the elite tend to cooperate with each other on different issues and multiple loyalties coexist. While I do not doubt the veracity of this assumption, I do think that such arrangement can only work when there are several topical policy issues of roughly the same weight. However, as soon as one issue gets to be much more important than all the others, the structure of the elite must change to be rebuilt along the cleavage created by the said important issue. Let me be more exact: as soon as the succession of Vladimir Putin has become a topical matter, clans started to re-emerge. Members of the elite cannot but enter into alliances, as by themselves they still are too weak to contest the status quo.
Like Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL, I have also noticed the string of attacks on Dmitry Medvedev, the government, and the governing United Russia party. First, the series of scandals related to corrupt United Russia deputies. Then the attack on Medvedev’s allies: Vice-PM Arkady Dvorkovich and the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Natalya Timakova. Then the publication of the report by a think tank close to Vladimir Yakunin, a close ally of Putin, claiming that United Russia in fact lost the 2011 Duma elections to the Communists, but an electoral fraud surpassing the wildest guesses even of Western observers helped the party claim victory. Then the drafting of the electoral law, preparing the ground for a vote that would arguably accommodate an increasingly nervous Russian society while guaranteeing a new majority for Putin.
To me, somehow, the whole set of events did not make sense. I dwelled both on the irrationality of early elections and of demoting Medvedev, from Putin’s point of view. Mind you, it was clear from the beginning that early elections could not be the sole purpose of the series of scandals, the publication of the infamous electoral report, etc. Why shoot at mosquitoes with cannons? If Putin wants early parliamentary, elections, there are much smoother tools to get there.
No, the aim was to discredit Dmitry Medvedev and United Russia. Then came Vladimir Priblyovsky to tell us about a plot of the chief of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, who apparently allied himself with Rosneft-based silovik, Igor Sechin and agents of the arms industry, Vice-PM Dmitry Rogozin and Rostechnologii chief Sergei Chemezov. Their first major project was to bring down the minister of defence Anatoly Serdyukov, and now their focus is on the energy sector (Arkady Dvorkovich) and the Prime Minister himself. There’s seemingly a clan made up of Ivanov, Sechin, Rogozin and Chemezov.
This all sounds quite plausible but still leaves many questions unanswered. What about, for example, Yakunin and the electoral report? Well, Yakunin can hardly be an accomplice to the ‘Ivanov clan’, for he is allied with a business group rival to Sechin: that of his dacha neighbour, Putin’s ‘personal banker’ Yuri Kovalchuk and Novatek chief Gennady Timchenko. Alas, there is much more to it than only conflicting business interests. Timchenko and Novatek, as it is known, throw their support behind Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow and his ambitions to become Prime Minister, something which puts him into a clear political conflict with Ivanov. We seem to have a second clan.
Is there more evidence to support this setup? As it happens, there is. I remembered the recent decision of Sobyanin to quit as political secretary of the Moscow branch of United Russia, thus starting to distance himself from the party. Quite like Vadim Solovyev hinted at it in Kommersant, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sobyanin taking up a more active role in the All-Russian National Front, the brainchild of the deputy chief of the presidential staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, which may soon become a political force on its own right. And yes: Volodin is in a clear, though less articulated conflict with Ivanov. Presently – as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported last year, citing sources from the Duma – the chief of staff is the chief instructor, the informal head of United Russia’s parliamentary group: he gives the orders to deputies and thereby possesses a great degree of influence. Should the People’s Front take over the role of the governing party, nevertheless, Volodin would obviously take over the rule and thus, the influence of Ivanov. Something, which makes anyone who is able and willing to attack the dominance of United Russia his natural ally. Thus is constructed the second clan: Volodin, Sobyanin, Timchenko, Kovalchuk and Yakunin.
As a matter of fact, if we take a closer look at the attacks on Medvedev and United Russia in the past month, we can see not one, but at least two different series of attacks. One is aimed directly at bringing down Medvedev but with the clear purpose of saving the United Russia party (cleaning it, at most, from problematic deputies, like Irina Yarovaya, who has been rumoured to oppose Ivanov’s kommissars in the group and who was recently caught in a corruption scandal). Another is aimed at bringing down the United Russia party (see the accusations in the report of Yakunin’s think tank) and preferably doing away with Medvedev at the same time. A third ‘clan’ – although not necessarily in the same sense – is made up of Medvedev and his allies.
A new equation for Putin
Whether Putin has taken notice of these developments will be reflected by whether and how Putin reshuffles the government. I have blogged earlier about the good reasons for Putin to keep Medvedev on as a Prime Minister. Now he has another one: as soon as he cedes that position either to Ivanov or to Sobyanin, he upsets the delicate balance between conservatives and liberals as well as between the two ‘conservative clans’. Not to mention that it’s quite likely that both Ivanov and Sobyanin want to be Prime Minister because this position is so closely linked to the succession of Putin. And as soon as one of them gets there, he will be interested in turning the opportunity into reality instead of waiting for a smooth transition that may or may not happen.
The upcoming reshuffle of the government seems more and more likely not only because the changing balance necessitates a reshuffle, as the latest report by the Minchenko Consulting suggested. Kommersant recently argued that the appointment of the former minister of economic development Elvira Nabiullina to head the central bank foretells a reshuffle at the level of Vice-PMs, for it breaks the status quo in one stratum of the political elite.
However, the appointment of Nabiullina signals another important development, namely, that Putin has started to understand the new situation and he is willing to take proactive measures. In a way, Nabiullina was a perfect candidate for the position: she was probably the smallest blow Putin could deal to the liberals who lost an important position but still have someone pragmatic to deal with; she is trusted by investors but quite probably she will be willing to loosen up the monetary policy of his predecessor, giving some breathing space to the economy. Most importantly though, she is a close ally of Vladimir Putin and to our present knowledge does not strongly belong to any of the interest groups. This loyalty will be extremely important when the central bank merges with the financial markets watchdog in 2015. Judging from former experiences of central bank governors with overseeing bank operations as well as from the statements of the outgoing governor Sergei Ignatyev about the illegal capital flight being worth $49 billion, half of which is administered by one organised group, we can assume that Nabiullina will have a potentially extremely powerful job very soon: a position that Putin badly needs in order to have another trump card over the increasingly warring factions.
While Putin seems to be aware that the situation is getting more and more dangerous, he also clearly trusts that he still has the necessary leverage over the political elite to remain in a pivotal position. In a way, the purpose of the new electoral law – drafted by Putin – is exactly to create a greater degree of stability whereby both United Russia and the People’s Front have their space and function and more importantly, where social tensions are appeased enough to guarantee a comfortable pro-Putin majority in the society suggesting to those standing in line that they had better wait out their turn in 2018 than try to get a decision in the near future.
Could it be that the clans are right? Do they see something we don’t see clearly yet? Recently, I picked up the thought of Mark Galeotti about the growing gap between Russian regions as well as between regions and Moscow being the untold story of the past couple of years. Indeed, there is an interesting variety of oil-rich, industrialised and poorer regions. What they have in common – as opposed to Moscow, the Moscow Region and St. Petersburg – is that a sudden deterioration of the economy would have grave consequences for their population, especially for lower-income residents. Exactly the strata of society where Putin is trying to build a new majority for himself. Gazeta.ru recently quoted a study by the Petersburg Politics think tank, according to which social protests in regions may soon become a real threat to the regime. Certainly, a situation like this could deal a death blow to Putin’s efforts to reinforce his position through widening his popular base.
Could it be that the situation is closer to the boiling point than we thought? We’ll see in October, when regional elections are held in many of the problematic regions.
To conclude, let me draw the attention to another aspect of Clan War II. As Brian Whitmore quite rightly noted, by allowing feud between elite groups, Putin now lets them break down taboos. Whether he has no other choice is his to decide, but a fact is a fact.
Now, one of the most important taboos in Russian politics has to do with the immunity of outgoing Russian leaders: earlier leaders either died or were simply sidelined after their tenure, but never prosecuted. However, if taboos are allowed to fall, the picture may suddenly look very different for Putin.