Nothing new under the Sun

The title may seem surprising. There has indeed been a lot of news recently in Russian politics, so much that it got a considerable part of us Russia-watchers confused. Gleb Pavlovsky quit, Medvedev started to replace officials on the boards of state-owned companies, a massive reorganisation has taken place in the police, the President started a legislative upsurge against corruption, a real chance emerged to revisit the case of Sergey Magnitsky, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a wide political alliance of parties, people and civil organisations who are ready to rally around United Russia. Some, including the very respectable Gordon Hahn on ROPV, suggest that this may be the sign of a real rupture on the highest levels of the ruling tandem. I agree with most of his points, but when it comes to drawing conclusions, we differ. I don’t think this is the beginning of an open war at the top. Here is why.

First of all, the weights attached to the ongoing policy changes and individual statements and actions should be uneven, still, sometimes they seem to be considered equally important by Russia watchers. Are Konstantin Zatulin’s allegations, or the siloviki’s attempts to counter the reinvestigation of the Magnitsky case really as important as the changes in the boards of state-owned companies or the shakeup of anti-corruption legislation? I don’t think so. And, most of all, Vladimir Putin has nothing to say against these. Contradicting his former “state philosohpy”, he has recently vocally supported the President’s efforts to separate the state and the economy. He lashed out against the leader of the siloviki, Igor Sechin on the gasoline prices and had nothing to say against the abolishment of tax breaks for Eastern Siberian oilfields.
Putin is probably the closest to what one might call “a pragmatic politician” (with a considerable degree of euphemism, of course). This means that he will not keep up obsolete views or allies. And the siloviki in the last 3-4 years have indeed become obsolete and an increasing burden. It is obvious that given the extent to which Medvedev’s team has infiltrated key structures in the economy and in other areas, it would be damn difficult to throw them out, should Putin aim at bringing back the system worked out under his presidency. Not to mention that Putin returning to the presidency – even without the siloviki – would certainly cause a major setback in Russia’s relations with the US or even with Europe. This in itself should be enough for Putin to reconsider if he had ever thought about a new presidential term. But there is another aspect. Liberalisation of a society has increasingly become a one-way street. What Putin was able to do in the early 2000s after a hasty and erroneous period of liberalisation, he would certainly not be able to do now, after the gradual changes introduced by the tandem and with a lot of Navalny’s and self-designed Politkovskaya’s around. If nothing else, the Arab spring must have tought this to Russia’s leaders.
No wonder that Medvedev is pushing for more and more changes, so to make this progress irreversible. I have no doubts that he would go even quicker if they let him. Now his team has even started the takeover of the interior ministry, with an increasing number of high-ranking officials getting replaced, even if they still shy away from an open attack on Rashid Nurgaliyev. Sooner or later this will happen as well (in fact, Kirill Kabanov, the head of the non-governmental National Anti-Corruption Committee hinted on this in today’s Moscow Times).
There is nothing unusual in a certain elite growing old and obsolete in a society. This happens in democratic societies as well. The main difference is that in democratic systems, outgoing elites have an institutional and procedural guarantee that they will not be spontaneously killed or put behind bars to keep them from interfering into the new system. In Russia, they don’t have this safety net. Moreover, the siloviki have socialised in an institutional and political culture where a loss of position was quite often equal to a loss of freedom or life. They cannot break out of this way of thinking. This is why undemocratic societies carry a high risk of “loose cannons”. As we have seen, the siloviki’s time is over, and they have recently become really aware of this. Of course they are panicking, and of course there is risk of them becoming loose cannons, making statements about Putin returning to the presidency.
The best the tandem can do is to try to calm down these tensions. And besides “sacking” advisors who talk too loudly about inevitable changes, like Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin can build on the last bastion of the siloviki, the United Russia party. As I have blogged before, I am sure there were plans about creating a multi-party governance by giving a facelift and a strong leader to Right Cause, and this would have been a big step forward. Now this plan seems to be thrown into the dustbin: Igor Shuvalov backed down, and Aleksey Kudrin does not seem to be too eager to take up this course either. Instead, Putin offered a facelift to United Russia by creating the All-Russian People’s Front. His Volgograd speech was not a program speech, it was much more of a soothing speech. As I have blogged before, trying to reform the ruling party is hard, but this seems to be the only way to ensure the siloviki that, even if only on paper, they will continue to be a part of the elite. This, and the apparent elimination of A Just Russia. These could ensure that United Russia continues to dominate the legislature and that Putin, as a personal guarantee for the safety of the siloviki, remains in charge – if not as Prime Minister, then as party leader.
If the concerns of the siloviki are not mitigated, it will be quite risky to go forward with Medvedev’s candidacy or to maintain the incertainty regarding the presidential election. Probably this is why Medvedev seems to be willing to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks, while Putin would wait with the decision. I’d like to remind everyone that there is an obscure press conference scheduled by Medvedev to 18 May, which might as well bring an important announcement. Or it might as well be about some issue of secondary importance, the same way we saw it last year when the President did his state-of-the-nation speech. This will entirely depend on whether Putin thinks that the siloviki have gotten enough guarantees or not.
I’d like to reaffirm my statement: Vladimir Putin, if he thinks and acts logically, cannot return to the presidency. Therefore, out of the four possible paths (Putin, Medvedev, both of them, neither of them), at least two seem highly illogical to take.
Now we only have to assume that Russia’s leaders act logically.
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