The war in Ukraine is, arguably, a very costly business for Russia’s leaders. No wonder that the political and business elite seem to be increasingly divided on the issue. However, the situation created by the conflict has benefited Russia’s ruling political class and personally Vladimir Putin in a different way: it granted the President an almost unprecedented hegemony over the Russian political sphere. Putin should, however, know that this hegemony is temporary. Therefore, while he is still able to accumulate further political capital, he will try to finish the redistribution of power and wealth that started together with his third term. This is expected to cost Dmitry Medvedev his position.
Local and gubernatorial elections in 84 regions of Russia resulted in a resounding victory of United Russia – albeit with a very low turnout (slightly over 20% in Moscow) and practically no opposition campaign: the government made it impossible, by administrative means, for most real opposition candidates to run. Many independent media outlets were crippled or silenced long before the vote and the political discourse, dominated by the war in Ukraine and the nationalistic propaganda of the government, prevented a healthy campaign. Yet, it is safe to assume that, despite the low turnout and the repressive campaign, the approval ratings of Russia’s leaders, at this very moment, are high enough to claim absolute dominance in politics.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament adopted laws granting special status to Donbass and amnesty to most of the separatists. While the adoption of these laws hardly make peace in Ukraine a done deal, they give separatists about as much as Vladimir Putin could and should ask for. More than this would be full-fledged independence, a strategically inconvenient and incredibly costly scenario for Russia. Surely, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko counts on the inability of the rebels (and their Russian backers) to consolidate the situation in the Donbass and to operate a functional state. “Let’s try separation”, the president seemed to be saying, “and in three years, you will run crying back to me.” This is far from a comprehensive reintegration strategy, perhaps, but it may still be a good political move.
Like there’s no tomorrow
Indeed, Vladimir Putin has things to fear if peace kicks in. The population of the Donbass, much more mixed and attached to the Ukrainian state than Crimea’s will certainly not welcome repression, which Russia, in this case, will not be able to sweeten with higher salaries and pensions. Even a Novorossia Maidan seems to be imaginable in the not-too-distant future. Moreover, Putin will have to deal with Donbass veterans, even after they have been disarmed and neutralised.
With an end game in Ukraine so near in sight and the political potential of United Russia so high, Vladimir Putin will feel tempted to make use of the war while he still can and go through with a long overdue decision: the dismissal of Dmitry Medvedev.
Shortly after the announcement of the official results on Monday, Dmitry Badovsky, an analyst at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a think-tank connected to the pro-Putin All-Russia People’s Front, spoke about the necessity of further steps to strengthen the standing of the governing party:
“In many countries, early parliamentary elections would be called under such circumstances” – said Badovsky. “These would, in turn, be won by the party in power, thus ensuring further political dominance for the 5 years to come.”
Understandably, Dmitry Medvedev swiftly denied that the government would support such a scenario. “We have to resist this temptation”, the Prime Minister said, and further develop democratic institutions instead. Medvedev is doing no less than fighting for his political survival, and for the so-called ‘liberals’ in the government.
That Medvedev and the liberals have been aggressively pushed into the background of Russian politics is a little contested fact. What started as a roll-back of Medvedev’s symbolic (i.e. the introduction of constant daylight saving time) and more substantial reforms (i.e. the prohibition of state officials to serve on the boards of public enterprises) has become a series of humiliations for the Prime Minister. Last week, only days after the flabbergasted gasps of his government over Rosneft’s demand that the state grant the company more than $40 billion to finance its debts – money that the state hardly has to spend – Medvedev personally announced that, after all, propping up Rosneft was not only possible, but ‘reasonable’. This tells a lot about power relations within the political elite.
Rosneft is certainly emboldened. The arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, 15th on the list of Russia’s richest people, the main shareholder of the lucrative oil company Bashneft, this week, was instantly likened to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. While both Rosneft and the Russian government vehemently denied that the underlying motivation of the move was Rosneft’s intention to broaden its grip on Russia’s oil market, Rosneft has been rumoured to be interested in buying Bashneft for more than a year. It would be hard to dismiss Yevtushenkov’s arrest as just a coincidence.
Rather, we are witnessing yet another stage of the reallocation of wealth in Russia – wealth that, in the past five to six years, and especially since the adoption of Western sanctions, has become scarcer. For the want of additional goodies, the only way that elite groups can keep increasing their wealth is to take it away from each other. In business, this is likely to mean more arrests and seizures. In politics, a major group will be pushed off the stage and roles will be redistributed. The safest way for a leader to do this is ensuring that there is enough political power to share. And while the war in Ukraine distorts Russia’s politics, there is. Or there may be.
Enter the new rules
By calling early elections, Putin may kill several birds with one stone. He could strengthen its parliamentary base, but more importantly, he may also erase the shadow cast on the present legislature by the contested 2011 elections. Three years ago, the election was essentially a referendum on the ‘castling’ of Putin and Medvedev as well as the notoriously corrupt regional leadership of United Russia. This time, it would be a referendum on Putin or his policies in Ukraine.
Early Duma elections would also make it possible for Putin to postpone appointing his successor. So far, the next legislative election, expected in 2016, has seemed to be part of a plan allowing Putin to handpick his successor, build up his political image as a candidate for Prime Minister, and, after a year spent consolidating his position within the political elite, nominating him to presidential candidate in 2018. Nevertheless, as I have blogged before, this plan was essentially the product of a ‘state of patience’, whereby both the elite and the population tolerated Putin’s third term but expected him to step back in 2018. The ‘state of patience’ has, however, been eclipsed by Putin’s new, imperial politics. An election in 2015 would mean that Russia does not have to face another national vote until the next presidential election. Putin would lose an excellent opportunity to build up his successor, surely, but he would not face pressure to do so, either. In case he manages to carry on with his winning streak – and a legislative election won by a landslide would do just this – he may as well decide to stay on for a fourth term.
The fact that the idea of an early parliamentary election is promoted by a think tank connected to the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a broad pro-Putin alliance with no clear structure or role in Russia’s political system, comes as no surprise. While the vote would arguably present United Russia with a to restore its prestige, it would first and foremost catalyse the formation of a second pro-Putin parliamentary force, and thus benefit ONF. As it has been noted several times, Russia’s new electoral rules, approved in February, are expected to result in nominally independent pro-government candidates running for office in constituencies where the governing party is relatively unpopular.
The ONF, since the moment of its creation, has served as a pole for certain power groups in the Russian political elite, connected to the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin or, supposedly, the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin. The war in Ukraine surely created new divisions within the elite, nonetheless, it did not affect United Russia or the People’s Front.
So far there has been relatively little open competition between United Russia and the ONF, the latter having been used as a tool or a platform to re-establish links between the population and Putin. However, these ‘independent’ candidates, if elected in sufficiently large numbers, are likely to speed up the institutionalisation of elite divisions; something that Putin, always a fan of overlapping authorities and competing structures, would surely prefer.
At the beginning of his third presidential term, Vladimir Putin started redistributing political power and material wealth among Russia’s political elite. Now he has to see it through, and do it while he has enough political capital to offer. This may just be the issue on which he finally differs with Dmitry Medvedev.