The dismissal of Vladislav Surkov might just be the beginning of a serious rupture in the Russian political elite. Not that this is of any surprise. Surkov was a very important figure of the past fourteen years and he is the second first-class player of the regime to leave after the equally scandalous exit of Alexei Kudrin in 2011. Not only is it likely that the purge against the liberal and technocratic wing of the elite will continue and speed up, there is increasing talk about and evidence of an institutional split in the political elite. The question is: does this matter at all, and if yes, why?
Surkov: the aftermath
In the past week we saw two further resignations, each connected to what seems to be the beginning of the swan song of the Medvedev government. First, Alexei Chesnakov, a deputy of United Russia and a former Surkov protégé resigned from the parliament. And not only did he resign: he seems to have turned his anger on his former party as well, having started a series of articles on Actualcomment.ru, airing the dirty laundry of United Russia (well, dirty laundry that pretty much everyone had known before: the lack of authority of Dmitry Medvedev over the parliamentary group of the party or the complete political disorientation of it). Second, Sergei Guriev, a prominent economist, part of the so-called Open Government project, has fled Russia after being openly supportive with the regime’s number one opposition bogeyman, Alexei Navalny.
What is astonishing in both stories is how little each of those affected cared to hide their annoyance or contempt. Chesnakov, as we have seen, stormed at his own party claiming how one “does not need to belong to United Russia to be loyal to the President.” As far as Guriev is concerned, Mikhail Abyzov, the minister in charge of the Open Government publicly vowed to continue cooperation with the embattled economist, even “online”, if all else fails. A couple of years ago, or even last year, a public spat like this would have been unconceivable.
It does not stop here. Judging from the events of the past couple of weeks, Vice-Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich seems to offer himself up as the next prey of the anti-liberal invasion. Dvorkovich, one of the best-known liberals of the government is currently overseeing energy issues which makes him a counterweight to and a natural enemy of the informal leader of one of the conservative clans, Igor Sechin. Dvorkovich seems to have lost out on the energy sector: in the course of little more than a year, Sechin has become the CEO of Rosneft, he’s on the board of the state energy holding Rosneftegaz, recently he has been appointed to the board of the electricity holding Inter RAO. Furthermore, he has managed to push through the takeover of TNK-BP, making Rosneft the biggest oil company in the world and he might even succeed in his endeavour to break up the rival Gazprom. This is a truly impressive list of achievements, against which Dvorkovich, in spite of actively trying, could essentially do nothing. Furthermore, he has been warned, and not even once. Akhmed Bilalov, a former official who was publicly reprimanded in March over delays and abuses related to the construction projects for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, and who has since then, fled the country, possibly to Germany, possibly to the UK, was the ally of Dvorkovich. But this was after all a subtle warning compared to the one he got last week when he was publicly humiliated by the guards of Vladimir Putin’s residence, who refused to let him into the estate up until he called his boss, Dmitry Medvedev.
And in case all this weren’t enough, last week he dared to publicly defend Vladislav Surkov, stating that ultimately, he did a good job. I would be hardly surprising to learn of the dismissal of Arkady Dvorkovich very soon. Possibly, linked to a larger-scale reshuffle giving back hardliners in the Presidential Administration their positions in the government.
Moreover, the waves made by Surkov’s uneasy exit do not stop at the liberal/technocratic – conservative cleavage. Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of Chechnya, hardly a liberal, also publicly supported Surkov, saying that he and the former ‘grey cardinal’ had been fishing in Chechnya at the weekend following his dismissal, just a couple of days before press reports claimed that Surkov might be the next target of the Investigative Committee. This is not the first time Surkov is eager to remind the government that it was he and his alliance with Kadyrov that essentially bought peace in Chechnya: in 2011, when he was dismissed from the Presidential Administration, Surkov has already played this card. Two years ago, however, he was parachuted into the government, while now he possibly faces prosecution. Ramzan Kadyrov is the last person anyone in the Kremlin would like to have as an enemy; however, considering the circumstances as well as the history of Chechnya and the Kadyrov family, Surkov might not even be bluffing about this.
This is exactly how hot the conflict, which Sean Guillory dubbed the “Cold War” of the elite just got. It is one of the two main cleavages in the Russian political elite today, the other giving rise to the “Clan War II” I have already mentioned.
The keeper of the house
Last week, Slon.ru featured an interview with Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin pundit, who gave a grotesque account of the state of Putinism today, describing Putin as less than the shadow of the omnipotent leader he once was.
“He does not have a team to lead any more, he is no longer the first among equals. The people are more or less the same but he is only the keeper of the house now.” – put Pavlovsky quite bluntly, claiming also that “Putin has always made the first step, then he slows down – this was the case with [the corruption case of former minister of defence Anatoly] Serdyukov or the Dima Yakovlev law [prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by Americans].”
Startling as it may seem, this is true. Just imagine Putin carrying out one of his unspoken yet much publicised ‘threats’: the appointment of Alexei Kudrin as Prime Minister. With the present legislative conditions and power imbalance, does anyone really see this happening?
The main reason for Putin’s being in a fragile position today is that he ran out of goodies. And goodies are essential in keeping the ship afloat in a system like Putin’s, both for the elite and the population, even if the President follows an extremely elitist way of thinking. But for a while now, goodies are on short supply, so apparently, Putin is trying to substitute real goodies with a mirage of goodies where he can. He puts forward a bunch of unrealistic decrees calling for a hefty increase in social spending, then reprimands the government for non-compliance; adopts or lets the Duma adopt paranoid laws hoping that there is still a conservative majority in the population that responds well to this kind of policies. It is not clear whether this is working well with voters: as I have mentioned before, the majority of the population shows patience, rather than support towards Putin’s presidency, partly because, as Mark Galeotti also pointed out, the non-systemic opposition is staggering as well.
However, it is quite apparent that the elite are not bought by false goodies. The first year of Putin’s third presidency saw a redistribution of increasingly scant resources. The first split in the elite (between the ‘inner core’ and the ‘outer core’) was brought about by an overall belief among the conservatives that the liberals and the technocrats got access to too much wealth during Medvedev’s presidency, so now they are getting back as much as they can. Putin must be well aware that the recent months have dangerously tilted the balance of the elite in one direction. However, he can no longer rein in, as by doing so he would put himself in danger.
The President is eager not to commit the gravest error an autocratic leader can commit: giving out the most important goodie, the keys to the treasury (most of them also known as the presidency or the succession). As soon as these get out of his hand, Putin is doomed. And if he tried to put the wealth-hungry conservatives preying on liberals and technocrats in their place, they may as well want the keys to the treasury instead of being patient. Putin has done some precautionary measures: he appointed close personal associates to important positions having to do with financial and business monitoring (the central bank, asset declaration oversight under the Presidential Administration, with the Audit Chamber coming up next). But this is not enough.
The mad guardians
One of the common mistakes of commentators on Russian politics is the underestimation of the importance of the State Duma. Indeed, the legislature has been behaving as a “rubber stamp” or as it has been called in Russian media, a “mad printer” in the past year. But this is an outcome of the circumstances in the higher echelons of the government. The importance of a legislature does not stem from the quality of its members or its independence, but from its constitutional position. And in Russia, the State Duma nominally holds many of the keys to the treasury. And arguably, the legislature is more easily taken over than the presidency.
Luckily for Putin, there is another split in the elite – within the inner core of it – the one that I called “Clan War 2“. While the liberals seem to lose the “Cold War”, there is no indication whatsoever of who will win the Clan War. As I have blogged before, the purpose of the emergence of a second ruling party, the All-Russian People’s Front is not only to grab the votes of the segment of the society that is disappointed with United Russia but patient with Putin, and not even to fill up the State Duma with Putin loyalists. Its purpose is also to create conflicting structures that balance out each other. Certainly, Putin would not like outright conflict – which is why the People’s Front will not be registered as a party, moreover, its membership has a lot of overlap with United Russia – but it is pretty obvious that we have two rival political projects.
In an earlier blog I outlined the evidences and the dynamic of the new Clan War. I suspect the head of the Presidential Administration Sergey Ivanov, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and the military procurement lobby to be behind one of these, while Ivanov’s deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin and Sechin’s business rivals are behind the other. While Medvedev and the liberals are an annoyance to both of these clans, they differ on their political platform. Volodin is the creator of the People’s Front while Ivanov is the keeper of United Russia’s parliamentary group at the moment. This is a split that, with the legislative and regional political appearance of the People’s Front – i.e. governors attending its June congress, the creation of a parliamentary group or early elections where it enters the Duma – may be institutionalised.
Is United Russia an ailing political project? Certainly. Could it be exchanged for another one overnight? Surely. Will it be? It will not, because there is a split in the elite and while conflicting power groups exist, even an ailing, yet monstrous political project like United Russia can be a valuable political platform. With or without a weightless leader like Dmitry Medvedev.
This is a fragile balance. It is much more fragile than the quasi-monolithic legislative base of the second Putin presidency. Even though both United Russia and the People’s Front stand behind Putin at the moment, we cannot rule out any more that sooner or later the President – as Pavlovsky put it – becomes “a mere moulding on the façade of the regime”. The fact that Putin may need to resort to this sort of balance marks how rotten the foundations of the system have become.
The liberal press described the Navalny trial as a game-changer: a warning like the Khodorkovsky trial predicting the new rules of an era. The trial, many argued, is the herald of a new era with very little room for dissenting opinions but presumably a better environment for business. A system that is rather Chinese than European.
But Russia is not China. It does not have the tradition of orderly rotations and the relatively high degree of upwards mobility within the political system. Putin does not have a new generation of intellectuals and young officials groomed by the system, standing in line for the succession. His authority is menaced by the very same people as a decade ago. As far as the ‘new generation’ of officials is concerned, they also received a strong signal of what is about to come: not the Navalny trial, but Surkov’s exit. And this may lead to two possible outcomes.
First, the ‘Guriev way’: an exodus of liberal economists and political managers similar to the exodus of businessmen in the early 2000s. Ironic and potentially dangerous as this may be, the alternative, the ‘Surkov way’ is much more dangerous. Unlike in ‘orderly’ authoritarian systems, this lot of up and coming leaders has already been in power once. They know what it is like, how it works, and, most importantly, they probably know a lot about the people currently at the top. If many in the elite choose the ‘Surkov way’, it might potentially get very dangerous for the current leaders or ‘keepers’ of the system.