It started as yet another bill extending the powers of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. It continued with brilliant back-handers from Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The Prime Minister dryly criticised Putin’s initiative, to which Putin replied with his typical scornful remarks. “I will be forced to remind that there is a set practice for resolving issues before appearing in the mass media. It is well known: if someone doesn’t agree with something, as Kudrin did in his time — he left to join the expert community” – said the President, getting the closest in his third term to dismissing Medvedev, and thus, doing away with the concept of the only nominally existing “tandem“ for good. In February, when most Russia-watchers were writing political obituaries for Medvedev, I argued that keeping the Prime Minister on for a just a while longer served important purposes: the illusion of power distribution, the presence of liberals in the government and thereby a certain balance of power. But another year has passed and Medvedev the Prime Minister may just have exhausted his usefulness.
The conflict between the Investigative Committee (SK) and the rest of the judiciary is not of recent origin. The SK started up as an institution nominally supervised by the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO). Ironically, liberals such as Dmitry Medvedev initially conceived the institution that later to became a bastion of conservative heavyweights exactly to chip off the influence of the PGO, then led by the siloviki. Instead, by its actual creation in 2007, tables had turned and Yuri Chaika, a person affiliated with the more liberal wing of the elite took over the PGO. To anyone interested in the juicy details, I recommend to read this thorough analysis by professor Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent. Thus, the SK was transformed into one of the many “conflicting structures”: an institution that has overlapping functions with its counterpart. Such institutions were of key importance during Putin’s first and especially during his second term, as they allowed the man in the middle to be the decider in scuffles among different interest groups. In 2011, the Investigative Committee was removed even nominally from under the jurisdiction of the PGO, and last year, with Putin’s having returned to the Presidency, it was beefed up to become the iron fist of the authorities to crush anti-government protests. And now it will be promoted to become the newest arm of the “aging octopus”. A supreme investigative agency that practically replaces the PGO and the tax inspectorate. No wonder that Prosecutor General Chaika has publicly accused Alexander Bastrykin, the director of the SK of being too greedy when it comes to expanding the powers of his agency.
According to Vedomosti, the initiative of the President came as a total surprise not only to the relevant ministries (this would be no striking news – harmonious cooperation as such between the President and the Government has been non-existent since 2012), but to many in the Presidential Administration too. This signals a growing mistrust between the President and the PA, long considered to have been a haven of conservative heavyweights after 2012. The PA was, indeed, a pool of more or less reliable personnel last year. Now, however, many of Putin’s closest confidants have been appointed to strategic positions. Many of those who remain – chief of the PA Sergei Ivanov, or his deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin – seem to be occupied already with the upcoming succession battles. This is why the President’s initiative was conceived in relative secrecy. Putin’s bill seamlessly fits into the recent series of appointments aimed at creating a hand-controlled supervision network below the President. A network that will allow Putin to apply “sticks” on dissenters within the elite should “carrots” (that is, redistributable goodies) run dry. A network that will quite possibly allow Putin to handpick and groom his successor.
Tatiana Golikova, a Putin confidant, former minister and Presidential advisor is heading the Audit Chamber. Elvira Nabiullina, a technocrat, allied to Putin, not closely tied to either of the Russian power clans, heads a central bank that has recently been beefed up to become the central institution of financial oversight. Evgeny Shkolov, Putin’s KGB friend oversees asset declaration of officials. Deputies of Putin’s “team” within the United Russia group in the State Duma occupy positions having to do with the fight against corruption. And now, Alexander Bastrykin, a former law school classmate of Putin may see his powers expanded to include filing tax charges.
Evgeny Minchenko was right in saying that there is one main question about the ongoing reform of the law enforcement system: who has the right to initiate legal proceedings? I have presented this dilemma on this blog last year, calling it “the kompromat bubble”: a fight for the keys to certain drawers hiding compromising information. Putin – a.k.a. the aging octopus – seems to be winning in this game.
Medvedev’s indignation is quite understandable. His reforms have been rolled back or scrapped altogether in every conceivable policy field, including the economy (scaling back privatisation and other attempts hindering the diversification of the economy), development (the ongoing dismemberment of the Skolkovo Innovation Center) or political rights (crackdown on the opposition). Nevertheless, the judiciary has become the main territory of liberals in the past five years. In fact, a large number of the cadres promoted or preserved during Medvedev’s presidency had to do with the judiciary. The most senior among them would be the aforementioned Yuri Chaika, the Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov, or the President of the soon-to-be-abolished Supreme Court of Arbitration Anton Ivanov. Exactly this realm is being attacked, and Medvedev decided to voice his displeasure.
Quite probably it is not specifically the tax investigation amendments that bother Medvedev. Rather than that, it’s the whole system apparently emerging on the ruins of the Medvedevian reforms, and the reasons behind the construction of this new system.
A strong liberal voice has no place in Putin’s “new deal”. The new deal that will usher – a less and less liberal – opposition activity to the local level, inviting the cooperative opposition into the system, while cracking down on nation-wide opposition. The new deal that builds Russia’s economic survival on a redirection of energy exports and the reestablishment of Russia’s sovereignty over the post-Soviet space, rather than diversification and privatisation. The new deal, built on nationalism, superpower pride and bills attractive to not-so-liberal-minded Russians, rather than “white, fluffy and liberal” initiatives (quote from Putin). But even more importantly for Medvedev, a strong liberal team has to be removed from the system. Putin needs liberals, but only up his sleeve, and separated. He can perhaps use Dmitry Medvedev, a loyal ally, but he does not need his team to lurk around and hold important positions. Similarly, Alexei Kudrin or Vladislav Surkov can be quite useful here and there, but only if they do not create their own power groups. Surkov tried and failed. Kudrin knows better. Luckily for Putin, these men do not stand very close to each other either. Anton Ivanov, however, is not needed. Accordingly, the Supreme Court of Arbitration will be abolished (its unification with the Supreme Court may even prepare a golden parachute for Medvedev). Also, Yuri Chaika is not needed. Accordingly, the PGO will be pushed into the background to favour the SK. Alexander Konovalov is not quite needed either. And I would not be surprised if the next major government reshuffle saw him axed.
I am not saying it will happen tomorrow. Arguably, the government has to finish some important and unpopular policy reforms: the revamp of the pension system, the housing reform, as well as all the challenges of a worsening economic outlook. They will also have to face whatever consequences the Sochi games entail. But Putin can now pull the trigger any time he wants. Knowing, at the same time, that whoever comes after Medvedev will very likely put in a claim for the presidential succession too.
The criticism voiced by Medvedev does not mean that he has definitively fallen out with Putin, let alone that he is going to put up a serious fight. Nevertheless, he is clearly aware that he is losing the game. In such circumstances it is advisable to make sure one has a support base. By standing up for the same ideas and interests as a considerable part of Russia’s business elite, Medvedev is doing exactly this. Such bills present a great opportunity to redesign himself as the advocate for business, minus the energy sector.
Ironically (or maybe intentionally?) this will make him a perfect candidate to head Russia’s redesigned Supreme Court.