Back to the future

It might seem as if the game had ended – at least this is what Novaya Gazeta proclaimed on its front page this week. In fact, the “game” has only just begun with last Sunday’s victory of Putin. I believe that in a way Putin’s third term will be more reminiscent to Medvedev’s intermezzo than to Putin’s first two presidential mandates. The elected president may have cleared an important checkpoint – smoother than many had expected – but he still has to face a more important, and tougher challenge: dismantling and redesigning a system he created, while avoiding potential loss of trust from either side of the elite. Thus, he has to create a new power balance, a new machinery and a new way of deliberation to run the state, a new popular platform and he has to do it so to be able to conduct the necessary economic and political reforms as efficiently as possible. The mortar of the system has already been eroded by the unorthodox circumstances under Medvedev, and the next couple of months will be decisive from the point of view of laying out the blueprint for a new, stable, but more flexible construction. But how will this look like?

Putin, as I blogged before, complying with the logic of the system, resorted to old reflexes and old ways in order to be reelected. However, by doing this, he practically promised two things to those whom he thinks his strongest basis are. First, he promised the maintenance of the status quo to the siloviki, and second, he promised the middle and lower classes a return to the stable growth of life standards. It is quite obvious that the two things cannot be done at a time, and the sooner the elite or the population recognises this to be the zero-sum game it is, the harder it will be to maintain the balance which has always been the guarantor of a stable central power in Russia.
Let’s also keep in mind that so far we have only considered one part of the population, one of the “two Russias” the last months seem to have given birth to. While they may still be a minority today, the younger middle class that awoke to its newly found political consciousness is the part of the population the new elite will have to be created from. Furthermore, it is growing in numbers and in importance, and will not settle for nothing more than a decent life.
Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment this week made two interesting remarks in Brussels, at a conference I had the chance to participate in. First, he suggested that the presidential election reduced Putin from being a supreme leader to a mere politician. Second, he pointed out the incapability of the power machine of Putin’s system, based on bilateral contacts between interest groups, clans and Putin – an invisible Politburo – to solve a crisis situation efficiently. I pretty much agree with these two points, and I also think that a solution to Putin’s dilemma may be a thorough restructuring of not only the positions, but the working mechanism of the elite. This is not a newborn idea. I’m quite sure that Dmitry Medvedev’s suggestion about a “broad government” pointed into this direction as well. The purpose will be to establish a more visible ground for the elite to clash their views while still keeping them under the watchful eye of the President. Putin as head of state will be in a position where he cannot be easily circumvented – he’ll put the stamp to any serious change or preventive measure thereof – and in the present situation where the joints of the system have considerably loosened, creating a controllable “forum for deliberation” might be safer than letting the elite create its own, potentially hostile structures. The price for this change might be a change in the image of Putin, from a supreme leader to a politician, as Petrov suggested, but this should not cause any serious problem provided that he still has a small core team that accept him as supreme leader. Hence the demonstration of his still unbent power, I blogged about last time.
Now, if we take a look at who might be part of this “broad government” or “new Politburo”, some interesting developments are apparent and a couple of intriguing questions arise. First, the last few months saw the revival of the siloviki clans. Sergei Ivanov, Sergei Naryshkin and Vyacheslav Volodin received important positions, while Igor Sechin managed to postpone the privatisation programme to the distant future. Meanwhile, important civiliki, like Vladislav Surkov, Aleksey Kudrin or, for that matter, Dmitry Medvedev have lost or about to lose their positions. This pattern seems to continue in the near future, considering things like the allegations that Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, the civilik counterpart of the silovik Alexander Bastrykin, is a “main source of information” to foreign intelligence services and companies like Stratfor, or the reportedly high chance of dismissal of civilik ministers like education minister Andrei Fursenko or minister for emergency situations Sergei Shoigu.
These and other civilik members of the government in a broader sense – like Nashi-chief Vasily Yakamenko are likely to be dismissed because of an increasing lack of trust – i.e. the rapidly decreasing influence of the civiliki in the government. Furthermore, the civiliki after Medvedev’s political suicide, Surkov’s demotion and Kudrin’s dismissal don’t really have a leader to rally around. The two most powerful civiliki in the government are supposed to be the minister for economic development Elvira Nabiullina, and deputy Prime Ministers Igor Shuvalov and Dmitry Kozak. All three are considered to be technocrats with close relations to Putin, and they are probably meant to have important duties in restructuring the economy, but they don’t seem to be able to lead a group that has the potential to be the counterweight  to Sechin and his flock.
Meanwhile, Putin may consider to dismiss a couple of “showcase siloviki” as well, in order to appease public sentiments. Defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, one of the least popular and least successful members of the government is an obvious one of them, but the minister for internal affairs Rashid Nurgaliyev might also be one of those made redundant. These changes do not necessarily have to affect the balance of power, as these ministries are considered to be the prey of the siloviki (despite civiliki attempts to take over the interior ministry in the last few years), and likely to be lead by other silovik cadres. A real threat to silovik interests, though, is the very possible dismissal of energy minister Sergei Shmatko, an official from Sechin’s orbit. He, according to Vedomosti, will be replaced by Mikhail Abyzov, the President of Ru-Com, but the matter is not settled yet. The power basis of the siloviki being the energy industry, a possible shakeup or the appointment of a counterweight to Sechin would lead to a considerable conflict. However, for the sake of economic viability, it has to happen sooner or later.
Another big question is where the likes of Aleksey Kudrin and, interestingly, Mikhail Prokhorov will get place in this equation. Kudrin is reportedly willing to come back to the government only if he’s appointed Prime Minister. The problem with this circumstance is not that Putin would have to break a promise made to Dmitry Medvedev – a couple of weeks ago even Igor Yurgens hinted at Kudrin’s being a better potential PM – but that Kudrin has the potential of building up a strong civiliki coalition. Obviously, this solution would go against the interests of the siloviki, and would be more difficult for Putin to execute as well. What I think will happen is that Putin will find out an interim solution for Kudrin, keeping him at bay until Putin feels comfortable in the post-2012 power structure. As for Prokhorov, he might be the “opposition” ingredient of this new structure, “if he wants to”, in an apparent move to prevent or to neutralise an opposition “mega-party” made up from Parnas, Prokhorov and Yabloko. The outcome could be a liberal “A Just Russia” or another powerful civilik in the government.
Of course, this juggling with elites, clans and power structures must not take long. Even if Putin still has the support of more than half of Russians, he cannot rely on the tactics of cracking down on the new opposition like he did after the election. Nothing will drive opposition forces more together than the growing presence of a common enemy. As long as part of the opposition sees Putin as a potential negotiating partner, he will still have the room to put changes into work in a pace to his liking. Otherwise, the opposition may gear up during the summer and use the October regional election to attack the system where it is the most rotten: in the regions. The opposition, thus, will have to be a part of the “broad government” – either as a variable or as an independent player.
Churov, the “magician” did his part. Now it’s time to Putin to show how much of a magician he is. If either of the above components are missing or wrongly calculated, then from being “just a politician” he might soon end up being a failed politician.
PS: Here I didn’t deal with the evaluation of the election in the sense of estimating fraud. I will do that in a longer and more detailed entry soon. By then, here’s my diagram of the outlier regions, and you should also take a look at the blog of Anatoly Karlin, who has already written and collected a lot of useful and interesting stuff about the fraud.
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