When two close Putin associates give strangely identical but ideologically divergent interviews, suddenly all the talk is about the Kremlin’s towers and Putin’s succession, instead of the September regional elections, which the Kremlin would like to leave behind as soon as possible. It would be easy to dismiss the back-to-back interviews with Rostec head Sergei Chemezov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu as an attempt to engineer public discourse. But there is more to this story than first meets the eye. This time, we might actually see the outlines of the post-Putin transition emerging.
Two interviews stirred up the muddy waters of Russian court politics in September. On 16 September, the RBC website published an interview with Sergei Chemezov, the head of Rostec, Russia’s state-owned industrial conglomerate and a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin. Less than a week later, the pro-government daily Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense, the man who, despite his admirable longevity in politics seems to have no serious adversaries. At least until now, some rushed to point out once the two interviews were published.
The two interviews were strangely identical in structure and inverted in content. Both Chemezov and Shoigu first recounted their successes, then gave a long and winding analysis of the policies they oversee. Chemezov talked about structural reforms, the benefits of a managerial approach to governance, the digital economy and some contentious issues such as waste management. Then he dropped two bones for pundits and political analysts to chew on: first he criticised the crackdown on protesters and spoke about the necessity of a healthy opposition; then he claimed that Putin was tired and “will have to leave” the presidency in 2024 as the constitution bars him from serving another term.
As far as Shoigu is concerned, the defense minister continued his long-running victory lap as the modernizer of Russia’s army and the man who oversaw successful military deployments in Ukraine and Syria. Shoigu also touched upon a sore point – the underdevelopment of the Russian Far East – by repeating his earlier suggestion to build a metropolis in Siberia. Only this time he promises two metropolises. In contrast to Chemezov’s sleek businessmanlike language, Shoigu spoke in a folksy way, expressed nostalgia for the Soviet Union and made sure to drop a couple of popular adages.
Both men, in their own way, made sure to deny, not quite explicitly but strongly enough, that they were seeking to be Putin’s successor. And due to this, of course, both are now considered by many to be first in line to the presidency. Shoigu has long since been one of the rumored candidates; Chemezov is a fairly new name in the pot, but almost immediately after his interview Telegram channels were buzzing with speculations and alleged insider information about his imminent appointment to head the Russian government – or to act as a “stabilizer” in the transition period between Putin and his eventual successor, whatever that may mean in practice.
Obviously, these speculations also diverted attention away from the aftermath of the September regional elections. And this might have indeed been one of their goals. But perhaps there is more to these interviews than meets the eye.
A successful partnership
As commentators focused on the differences between the visions offered by Chemezov and Shoigu, it was fairly easy to overlook that both men are representatives of Russia’s military industrial complex and their smooth cooperation in the past years has made them significant beneficiaries of Russia’s military modernization scheme. The Russian government, even with a 4 percent drop, spends 1.44 trillion roubles on military procurements and modernization this year. Rostec, a corporation created in 2007 that has since then swallowed hundreds of smaller companies that develop and manufacture arms and military equipment, is the main beneficiary of the Defense Ministry’s orders. Even though Rostec is by no means a well-run company, the military modernization program has ensured that the corporation enjoyed hefty profits amounting to billions of dollars in recent years, almost entirely due to government orders that made it possible for it to expand.
In 2012, Chemezov was rumored as Russia’s next defense minister to replace Anatoly Serdyukov who initiated the army’s modernization but had to resign due to corruption charges. Instead of him, Shoigu got the job and Chemezov remained the head of Rostec (Serdyukov later also joined the company), but the arrangement worked out well for both of them. Both men strengthened their position not only in federal decision-making but also in the regions where they have built networks of governors and regional leaders. Shoigu is (and has been for most of his career) one of the most popular members of the Russian government. Chemezov is one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted allies. So far neither of them has been embroiled in significant corruption cases. It is entirely possible that after a long period of growth in resources and political influence that affected the area that they supervise they are now taking a careful shot at becoming Putin’s chosen successor and will therefore become rivals.
But in fact, it is the present situation – in which neither of them is the successor but both could be it – that benefits Putin the most.
A durable consensus
Many observers rightly pointed out in the past months that some of the key elements of Russia’s competitive authoritarianism were not working as they were intended any more. In Moscow and St. Petersburg the authorities had to put an almost comical effort into engineering elections and had to ramp up repression to keep voters in check. A crisis of political responsibility increasingly paralyzes decision-making and governance at the regional and local level. Falling real wages question the social contract between previously pro-Putin country dwellers and the president. The Moscow election, however, also showed that some of the cornerstones of the regime were still stable: there is still a consensus around not letting “non-systemic” opposition candidates on the ballots. United Russia whose Moscow candidates ran as independent is certainly less appealing as a political brand now than it was ten years ago, and it may even have lost steam as a political machinery operated from Moscow, but almost everywhere in Russia it is still the party of power and political intrigues often play out within the party (as they did in the Irkutsk city assembly last week).
While some elements of the system seem to be fading away, others are here to stay in the foreseeable future. These durable elements will therefore have a stronger role in shaping political strategy.
If the durable consensus in the elite is pointing towards a hard limit on political competition and the expectation is for Putin to leave the presidency in 2024, it is not unreasonable to expect the next iteration of controlled competition to play out in the context of the presidency and not in the legislature. The party system built during Putin’s first two presidential terms is becoming obsolete and uninspiring not only because the parties themselves are losing relevance, but also because the institutions for which they compete are losing relevance too. One way to get voters interested in these institutions is devolving actual power to them. Another way is Navalny’s “smart voting”. The Kremlin clearly doesn’t want either of these. Focusing – at least in the media – on Putin’s succession may seem like a good alternative.
More importantly, there is a chance that this could develop into a Russian model of succession: something unlike the dynastic models of Central Asia or the highly centralised regular selection of Chinese party cadres: a controlled competitive succession, in which Putin does not appoint or suggest a successor but acts as a doorman who decides who is permitted to enter the competition by remaining the one player whose authority no one seriously questions.
This of course is not necessarily Putin’s choice. Unlike in 2007-08 when he had full control over the selection and the elevation of Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency, in the above model he would have limited control and even that only as long as his authority is not directly questioned. But with the mediocre hand that he now has, this may be the best game Putin can play.