Rearranging that team photo

Russian media served a delicious treat to Kremlin-watchers last week. The Minchenko Consulting Group published a report on the “Politburo 2.0”, trying to decipher and to put into context the new setup of the “collective Putin” after the March presidential election. The report names eight top officials and businessmen that collectively take decisions on Russia’s future, and draws up a power map in the different policy areas of the government. The reason why the report is particularly interesting is not that it conveys a lot of new information – it doesn’t – but that it gives a coherent picture and through hinting at the changing agenda of the elite it suggests drawing some important conclusions, which support speculations that Putin might not fulfil his third presidential term after all. 

Expectedly, the report states that powerful conservatives have the largest influence in the new Politburo, with the vice-chair of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin exerting considerable power in legislative programming and political management, or Rosneft CEO and energy tsar Igor Sechin gaining increasing influence over the energy sector, etc. However, these people and their associates all lack something. Volodin has little business base and isn’t really integrated in Putin’s St. Petersburg circles. Sechin, at the same time, is in conflict with other business leaders, notably Gennady Timchenko and Yuri Kovalchuk  (conflicts that have had some visible signs in the past couple of months).

At the same time, it seems that conservatives are still mainly occupied with the redistribution of assets, and do not add much to policy programming – except, of course, to the “law enforcement block”, which is almost exclusively under conservative control. In other policy fields, however, Putin’s “experts” come predominantly from the more technocratic/liberal circles of the elite. Although only “candidates” in the Politburo 2.0, Vladislav Surkov, Igor Shuvalov, Anatoly Chubais and Alexei Kudrin (to name a few) are important parts of the system. However, as some of us have pointed out upon the formation of the new government, the conservative members of the decision-making centre have their strings to pull in strategically important positions of the “economic block” as well.

So far, so good. There’s nothing astonishingly new.  Such distribution of duties and political influence supports my earlier claims that economic policy is likely to be the most important battlefield of the different groups within the elite. There are, though, two important novelties, for which I cannot but agree with one of the most important conclusions of the report, notably that there is no stable balance within the Russian elite.

First, business battles that have a lot to do with different viewpoints on the future of Russia’s economy – I won’t go into details here, but here’s an example – have started to intensify. Take the usual skirmishes for state assets. Add the grim perspectives of the European economy, the downward trend of global oil prices and the debates over the consequences of Russia’s accession to the WTO, and there you have it. Most importantly, there’s the story about BP’s stake in TNK-BP, but the attacks on Alexander Lebedev or the seemingly never ending disputes over what state assets to sell and how are all symptoms of a major emerging conflict over economic and business policies, one unseen since the early 2000s. And, as I blogged before, Vladimir Putin seems to lack the will, the power or both to put an end to this conflict before it gets out of hand or does much harm.

One might say that intersecting cleavages between different interest groups are a common feature in Putin’s Russia, and it has been exactly this phenomenon that has allowed Putin to be ‘The Decider”, the pivotal point of the system between conflicting groups, and, from this point of view, the present situation does not represent anything new, even if the intensity of influence scuffles might seem to surpass earlier levels.

However, there is another novelty, a new variable in the system. A couple of years ago, despite all their differences, members of the “Politburo” would have agreed on one thing: how to deal with the masses. The opposition was part of the system, and the part of it that was not was easy to silence.

What we see now, on the other hand, is that there is a growing disagreement within the elite on how to deal with the opposition. Notably, a couple of days ago, ran an interesting piece on how increasingly split even the Presidential Administration is becoming on the issue of the harsh measures to suppress the opposition. Although I don’t want to contradict Gleb Pavlovsky who warned against exaggerating the importance of a couple of firings (although the attacks on Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, the main instrument for the crackdown, is undoubtedly a symptom of the same thing), I think this is an alarming sign for Putin.

Not only does this make more and more difficult to “play to his own base” within the elite, but it also signals that the non-systemic opposition has now arrived to a point where it can set or at least considerably influence the agenda of the highest circles of the ruling elite – that is, the agenda of Putin’s core constituency. This is a completely new phenomenon, something that used to work the other way around: “political managers” defined the social agenda while the elite was busy distributing and fighting over assets, and Putin was busy being The Decider. This traditional pastime of the elite is now upset, and I doubt Putin, seen by many in the society as the core problem, could easily be The Decider in this new game.

The Minchenko paper states that at this moment no one in the elite is speculating for an outcome that includes a total change. They also argue that there are two scenarios ready for a “crisis situation”: a liberal one with Alexei Kudrin and a left wing, nationalist one, possibly with Dmitry Rogozin.

Notwithstanding the possibility of such scenarios, I don’t think the elite, or even different branches of the elite have polished, ready-made plans (or prepared candidates) at this point. The first half of the next, say, twelve months will be outstandingly important in this regard.

What, on the other hand, seems increasingly certain to me is that there are more and more within the elite, who cannot help but be concerned with what’s happening in the society, and who, if they deem the situation ripe, would be willing to break a taboo and jettison Vladimir Putin.

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