An aging octopus

Right after the Moscow mayoral election, Vladimir Putin nominated his aide Tatiana Golikova to head the Court of Audit. The Russian and international press did not care much: after all, Navalny and Roizman occupied the headlines. A couple of weeks later, Vladislav Surkov, whose resignation from the government stirred a major scandal in May, prompting Russia-watchers, including me, to draw a series of conclusions, was reappointed to the Presidential Administration. Again, political commentators cared hardly more than to yawn and shrug. If I were to describe the most important change in Russian politics in the course of the past months, I would point at the shift in public discourse from Kremlinology to actual politics. Is this shift, however, justified?

Lessons from Valdai

Perhaps the only topic reminiscent of Kremlinology that got considerable attention in the past weeks was Vladimir Putin’s annual expert get-together, the Valdai Discussion Club. This year’s event was not only notable for Putin’s usual scornful remarks. This year major opposition figures were invited and welcomed to the forum: Evgeny Roizman, the freshly elected mayor of Yekaterinburg, Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-chairman of the RPR Parnas party that formally nominated Alexei Navalny, or socialite Ksenia Sobchak, a one-time Putin protégée (and daughter of Putin’s former boss Anatoly Sobchak), who fell out of favour when she criticised the government. Notably, Navalny himself was not present.

Further to this rare showcase of the “goodwill” of the authorities, Putin levied harsh criticism on the West, both politically and culturally. So harsh that some saw it as the core of a brand new ideology. Even more so, as the President – when he was asked about his future – did not rule out running for a fourth term in 2018.

First of all, there is no need to read too much into Putin’s answer. What he said does not mean that he is actually thinking about this possibility. Just as those in the line for succession – Sergei Sobyanin, Sergei Shoigu or Sergei Ivanov – cannot openly talk about their ambitions (even though they are half-jokingly asked from time to time), Putin cannot break this taboo either. In 2013, it’s too early to make comments on 2018, however clear it might seem today that this will be Putin’s last term. As far as the rest of the Valdai Club is concerned, however, there are some lessons to draw.

Good news for the opposition is that the Russian political system does show some signs of decline. Notably, the following ones:

  • Strong political and cultural opposition to the West: as Piotr Rachovsky, the one-time head of the Okhrana, the secret service of Imperial Russia observed, people will always yearn to have someone to blame for their own bad fortune; mix this yearning together with a weak political culture, and if the image of a common enemy is hammered into voters, many will accept strong leadership. This is why, for an authoritarian leader, eager to quench problematic or threatening elements within a political entity, creating internal “enemies” is a natural strategy. As long as he is able to act, that is. Nonetheless, as soon as the same leader is increasingly unable to act internally, external enemies come more handy – after all, nothing can be done about them anyway, but they will be there to scare.  This is why, rather than internal enemies, Putin’s political system now increasingly needs external ones. Hence Putin’s increasingly more fundamental anti-Western rhetoric. Rather than pointing the finger at enemies within Russia, Putin will more and more resort to these kinds of speeches.
  • The “soft inclusion” of a part of the new opposition: the presence of Roizman, Ryzhkov, Sobchak et al. at the forum signals that the ideological narrative of Putin’s system has changed. Just a couple of years ago the slogan was: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”; now, it is rather: “if you’re not against us, you’re with us”. This is a very important difference. The system does not require active support from its citizens, any more. It is contented with a lukewarm state of patience, a shrug and a wave of hand, at least until 2018. A similar shift occurred in some countries of the former Eastern Block too, to give way to “soft dictatorships” in the 60s-80s. By accommodating critical but not radical elements inside the system and offering an acceptable modus vivendi to the large majority of citizens, this shift practically incorporates a contradiction into the official political discourse. A contradiction that will necessarily lead to a change, by creating a “hot stagnation”, or a “hot zastoi” but it also greatly increases the chances of a soft landing (a change that is both beneficial or at least acceptable to the opposition and the present rulers). The problem with this solution from the leaders’ point of view is that it usually requires redistributable wealth – something that is on short supply in Russia nowadays – which is why it will probably put pressure on the state budget.

Thus, there clearly is a walkable path ahead for the opposition. As former Kremlin pundit Gleb Pavlovsky called it in an interview with last week, there is a “foggy path of opportunities”. Nobody knows how wide it is and where it leads to, but as I have also blogged before, nevertheless, there is a place to push ahead: cities, perhaps regions led or soon to be led by opposition politicians. Maxim Trudolyubov in Vedomosti used an IT analogy: the intent to include of the non-systemic opposition in the Russian political system signals an “upgrade” but not an “open code”. Many are allowed to “play along”, but they are not (yet) certified to rewrite the rules. Even Vladislav Surkov is allowed back to “play along” with Vyacheslav Volodin, possibly in a hope that the two of them will be able to work out something where so far both of them failed (notably, no one seems to know what Surkov will actually be doing in the Presidential Administration). Who knows? Maybe even the “slacker” Alexei Kudrin will be admitted back to the government soon.

And now, for the bad news…

The swamp of the sistema

I finished reading Alena Ledeneva’s book “Sistema: How power works in modern Russia” a couple of weeks ago (just like Sean Guillory, who published an excellent review on it). The conclusion of the book is that for the want of a quick, violent and momentous upheaval, the sistema, that is, the clandestine network that makes Russia work but prevents it from modernising cannot be challenged, only “changed from within” to make it work. The sistema bears some resemblance to the Party in China, inasmuch as it is both nowhere and everywhere, but over the years it has become even more rigid and persistent than that. The existence of this informal network – the “head node” of which is Putin – is exactly the reason why it is impossible to carry out a “turtle-speed revolution” in Russia. And when it comes to evolutions rather than revolutions, well, they always include a kind of convergence from both sides: changes, yes indeed, but adaptation to the establishment as well.

Needless to say, the sistema is a prison even for Putin himself. Its mere existence determines and limits the scope and the effect of his actions, but without it, he would not be able to act at all. Nevertheless, as the “head node”, Putin does have certain leverage over other parts of the system. If he is able to use this leverage wisely, he can preserve his privileged status. This is what he has been already doing so far, of course, but changing times call for changing strategies.

As I have blogged several times before, because of the actual (and looming) shortage of redistributable goodies to accommodate the Russian political elite (or, if you will, the sistema), Putin had to look for “sticks”. It is absolutely no surprise that Elvira Nabiullina, a Putin-loyalist, a technocrat with no strong connection to any of the power clans and with no strong political ambitions got to head a central bank, which was immediately beefed up with financial oversight functions. Just as it was no surprise that Putin’s “to-do-man” and former KGB friend Evgeny Shkolov got to head the interagency commission dealing with official’s property and business ownership. Another important oversight institution headed by another staunch Putin loyalist. Even in the State Duma, the handful of United Russia deputies that are tied directly to Putin are placed strategically to anti-corruption bodies. And now, unsurprisingly, Tatiana Golikova, yet another loyal technocrat will lead the Audit Chamber, yet another important oversight institution. In the sistema, direct connections are invaluable. And Putin is just about to have direct connections to institutions able to name, shame and – together with the Investigative Committee, another important bastion of the core system – punish any unruly officials.

In the years of abundance, Putin was the “decider”. In the years of want, he wants to be the “punisher”. And if the sistema is really an entity that cannot be circumvented or destroyed, having the upper hand over it pretty much equals to a mighty (if not almighty) trump card. Even in a system past its prime.

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