There is a very unique Russian word that has haunted Russian politics ever since the fall of the Soviet Union: kompromat, a Russian-style contraction of ‘compromising material’. Kompromats have a lively culture in Russia. Creating a good kompromat has become something of an art. Mind you, in the past decade the state itself has helped a lot to maintain the tradition of kompromats as well, by creating regulations impossible to comply with and creating artificial rivalry between state structures. However, there are signs that this ‘kompromat-bubble’ is about to burst and create a mess like the housing bubble when it burst.
Many of us noticed some kind of schizophrenia in Russia-watchers and political commentators. While there is an almost unanimous agreement that Vladimir Putin’s situation has become rather unfavourable in the past year, a lot of people seem to think that somehow he has managed to keep or even strengthen his grip on the political, judicial and economic system. Obviously, both cannot be true at the same time.
If we take a good look at Putin’s assets, it’s not so difficult to see where he is losing and where he has so far managed to keep afloat.
Putin’s popularity among voters has suffered a considerable drop in the past year, but he’s still very far from facing some kind of general disapproval. In March, after two events that could have crushed his reputation straight into pieces – the announcement of his comeback and the Duma election -, he was able to convincingly win the presidential election (even if we consider that some riggings undoubtedly took place). Ever since then, his approval ratings have remained fairly high, even if constantly dropping. However, as I blogged earlier, voters are greatly divided on Putin’s personality.
The government is less of a clear issue. Arguably, its present composition is a patchwork of siloviki-connected second-liners, technocrats and liberals, almost none of which however have strong personal ties to Putin. At the same time, many of the government members are somehow connected to one or even more than one of the interest groups that gravitate around people like Igor Sechin, Sergey Ivanov or, for that matter, Dmitry Medvedev. Even if these people themselves have strong personal ties to Putin himself, there is now a second or, in many cases, a third level of transmission of orders which undoubtedly makes the central supervision of the government more difficult. Furthermore, according to this article published in NezGaz, there is “only about a dozen” of Putin’s people in United Russia’s Duma group.
They are, however, well placed. Vladimir Vasiliev, the new leader of the United Russia group is a close associate of Sergey Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration. Perhaps even more importantly, Nikolai Kovalev, the new head of the parliamentary State Duma commission for control over deputies’ income and property declarations, one of the most important and powerful institutions in the House, if we think of the anti-corruption wave of the past weeks, is former FSB chief and Putin’s man.
Recent weeks saw a large number of corruption cases brought to the public. Not only Anatoly Serdyukov had to give up his position as Minister of Defence, but a number of other scandals made headlines too, including the one around the Global Satellite Navigation system (GLONASS), the Regional Development and the Agriculture Ministries as well as the case including Alexander Provotorov, the head of Rostelecom.
What’s common in many of these scandals is that they refer to cases that had probably been lying in the drawers for years. Presidential Administration chief Sergey Ivanov, one of the main beneficiaries of the GLONASS scandal publicly admitted that he had known about the crimes in question for years, but he had decided to “wait”. It’s the same case with the Agriculture Ministry and Rostelecom.
Yulia Latynina published an interesting article in Novaya Gazeta last week, affirming my suspicion on this. She compared the present scandals to the 2007 Transneft case which was, once the main culprit, general director Semyon Vainshtok personally apologised to Putin, quickly swept under the carpet. Now, however, old corruption cases have been made public with breathtaking speed. And let’s be sure about it: there is more where these have come from.
So it might seem that Vladimir Putin has decided to change the rules of the game he plays with the elite. In the seven years of great abundance, the constant redistribution of wealth and the organisation of overlapping and competing structures to maintain a balanced rent-seeking competition was enough to keep dissenters at bay. Now, however, as there is no new wealth to redistribute, Putin might have felt the need to move from carrots to sticks. And he is trying to place his remaining pawns and officers accordingly.
There is ample evidence to support this. The law on the foreign assets of officials was a clear attempt from Putin’s side to signal this change in the game to the elite. However, there has been an unprecedented revolt against Putin’s anti-corruption attempts in the State Duma. It seems that even Sergey Ivanov, a man who has arguably gained the most influence in Russia during the past couple of months, and who personally supervises United Russia’s deputy group faced considerable opposition from the part of some deputies. This confirms the fact that there is a growing number of people in the elite that will not ‘respond well’ to these new rules. And it’s very likely that they are, ultimately, right.
In last week’s Power Vertical Podcast Mark Galeotti stated the important fact that even if Putin is behind the anti-corruption frenzy of the last weeks, he would ultimately not be able to keep under control, as he would not be able to base it on one single agency. True, Putin has so far based his influence on competing agencies, which can become quite dangerous once cadre supervision is more and more indirect and there is a weakening positive basis of the system. The corruption scandal affecting Rostelecom’s chief, Alexander Provotorov, an official clearly connected to Putin, is a prime example. In brief, as I said above, there are many cases still in the drawers. But these drawers are situated in multiple offices and not only Putin has the keys to them any more.
There is, of course, another dimension of this process. I’ve been arguing for months that Vladimir Putin has started to move away from the ‘tough referee’ image he created in his first and second terms, towards a more political role of a real president, building upon his still-existing popularity, trying to seek an agreement with the population. An article in NezGaz last week seems to confirm this. NG reported on a secret Kremlin strategy paper according to which Putin would turn partly against the siloviki and move closer to the liberals – Alexei Kudrin, most likely.
Putin will deliver his annual address to the Russian parliament later this month. It still remains a question whether he will announce momentous changes or not. The corruption cases of the past couple of weeks may be part of this change inasmuch as they might also intend to project a renewed, honest, anti-corruption image of Putin to the population. Events of the last weeks, however should also remind the president that he might have opened Pandora’s box. There are many drawers in Russian offices and one of these might have a kompromat with Putin’s name on it.