Is there really something happening in Russia, or are we only made to believe that? I think this is the main question that has been emerging in this election year of 2011, with a lot of arguments on both sides. On the surface, apparently, a lot of things change. Sergey Storchak is freed, the Khodorkovsky case may be revisited, and finance minister Aleksey Kudrin seems to have opened Pandora’s box with his recent calling for a real political reform. Now other economists follow the lead, continuing the line started by Vladislav Surkov last year and interrupted by the “safety speech” of Dmitry Medvedev in December. Some argue that Medvedev slowly but surely started to take over the leadership in the tandem, pointing at the steadily decreasing number of siloviki in the state administration. Others say that we are witnessing a farce, the only goal of which is to maintain some kind of tension in Russian politics, so that Putin can embark on his “Plan B” if things start to get out of hands.
First of all, let’s get some things right. Even if the siloviki have lost a lot of ground in the past 3-4 years, they still have valuable assets in their hands. The control over state energy giants, to name an example. Second, the men who started the calls for free and fair elections both stand quite close to Vladimir Putin. Kudrin was a colleague of Putin’s in St. Petersburg, and his closeness to the Prime Minister is clearly manifested by the “immunity” he enjoys in the clan battle of Russian politicians. Surkov, just a year before calling for more openness and speaking out against United Russia, was clearly denouncing political reforms, which he called a factor that could bring more instability. They both stand close to the tandem, they are part of the “civiliki” but they are not in “Medvedev’s team”.
What if Vladimir Putin saw the opportunity to finally tie the civiliki – or at least their leaders and ideas – to himself? This wouldn’t be a brand new idea. Years before, it was included in STRATFOR’s analysis about the new power structures in Russia, but dismissed as a plan which Putin did not have the political power to do. Certainly not back then, but now things have changed. The siloviki have something to chew on: oil prices are skyrocketing, and the delicious cake called the assets of Moscow is about to be cut up again. The siloviki do actually get something, and, apart from the firing of Vyacheslav Ushakov (that may as well be regarded as an episode in the siloviki clan battles, or a much-needed sacrifice after the Domodedovo bombings, or both), their main bastions remain intact. No better time for Putin to have “safe” people calling for political reform, before one of his adversaries do. The same is slowly happening with the notion of modernisation being tied stronger to United Russia.
This doesn’t necessarily mean any changes in the tandem’s plans regarding the 2012 election. Medvedev still has the potential: with the row around Kuril islands he might as well build up the image of a foreign policy strongman until the selection of a candidate is due. The tension might be kept on the surface, but I think that really, Putin is trying to avoid a crisis similar to the one before the 2008 succession. The best way to do this is to make all the roads lead to his office, that is to say, to keep everyone satisfied at least for this year (that is why it will be so damn interesting to see who gets what in Moscow).
This is of course a risky game to play, and this will be the biggest test for the Putin-led tandem. Putin has to avoid battles started by the siloviki, in which he can easily get hurt. He must also avoid losing Medvedev to a strengthening group of “liberalisationists”. Most importantly though, he has to make sure that he has enough institutional and organisational instruments to do all this.
Will this lead him to believe that it’s not that easy after all to prevent imbalance when he’s just Prime Minister?