The Putin Defence

Obviously, the biggest question when it comes to the new power structure in Russia will be about the handling of inevitable personal clashes. As I’ve blogged before, Vladimir Putin will have to solve a double task: he will have to ensure stability for the elite that takes stability for the preservation of the monolithic power structures, while at the same time ensuring stability for the population that takes stability for the return of stable growth. As a third factor, Putin will also have to deal with those who want change, and who may as well be more powerful than Putin has anticipated. Especially now that we’re closing in on regional elections. I suppose that Putin will try to put in place a system where, in the short term, he will be trying to keep heavyweights out of the frontline and push a semblance of changes to the foreground. This might allow him to buy precious time, but it won’t be near enough to preserve a system which is more and more decaying from below. 

Last time I went through some of the expected personnel changes in the government, and touched upon the sensitive issue of energy policy as well. Now the solution of this puzzle seems a bit clearer. Igor Sechin will surely leave the government, and take up a role supposedly somewhere in the Presidential Administration. At the same time, Pavel Fedorov, a former vice-president of Rosneft has recently resigned to occupy the position of Sergei Shmatko’s deputy in the energy ministry. He is known to Vedomosti as a trustee of Sechin, while his acclaimed financial abilities and his Western experience may make him likeable to the civiliki as well. In other words, he seems to be the perfect compromise candidate, either as future energy minister or as the hand of Sechin to keep in place whoever will succeed Shmatko.
For Sechin will almost surely continue to have the last say in important energy matters. Nina Ivanovna suggested on Twitter that he might be given the chair of a newly found agency under the President, overlooking energy issues and privatisation. I agree with this: there’s no better way to derail an unwanted privatisation than to be put in charge of it. Also, I suspect that all the siloviki – or let’s call them “conservatives” – who have found or will find their new places in the Presidential Administration, though pulled back somewhat into the backround will have such “hands” in the government. Also, it will be easier for the President to keep an eye on them.
Meanwhile, representatives of the civiliki, or the liberal intelligentsia may be offered senior positions in the government – some of them already have one, but there’s speculation e.g. about the chief economic advisor of the Kremlin, Arkady Dvorkovich getting a chair – where they can engage in an underground, or, eventually, an open conflict with second-line conservatives. Brian Whitmore has also drawn attention to the possible revival of the fortunes of Vladislav Surkov, whom says is pushed by Dmitry Medvedev to become an influential figure in the new government. Now, if the plan is really for the government to be the real battleground at least in the first part of Putin’s third term, Medvedev will indeed need a spin doctor to keep things in place (as I’ve already mentioned in December). Of course, this will ultimately depend on Putin. The question is where the line between balance and an “unduly” great power for the liberals is, for this is what Surkov cannot cross. At this point, I guess Putin prefers to keep Surkov in the stock for later use.
This strategy of creating a mini-government in the Presidential Administration from conservative heavyweights while exposing changes and the accompanying clashes in the government may fit both ideas of “stability”, and may also help, through a clearer separation of groups, the creation of a new Politbüro, and, eventually, a new political elite.
The problem is that there is a growing discontent in Russia’s regions with the local representatives of the ruling elite. Furthermore, we’re getting closer to the October regional election which will be the first test for the emerging opposition. We’ve clearly seen that the opposition has no considerable chance against Putin himself, but we’ve also seen in Tolyatti and in Yaroslavl that they indeed do when facing corrupt and hated local viceroys. Putin will thus have half a year to “steal the show” with spectacular changes at the top of the political elite, for the want of political will to make changes at the bottom. Or, alternatively, by playing he old game of sending Trojan horses to the opposition camp, thus also inflicting mistrust. I’m pretty sure Putin will rely on one of these tactics. But then again, these are only suitable in the short term. In fact, United Russia needs a strong “legal” opposition more than anything else, to justify its own existence and to get it moving ahead.
I’m a bit reluctant to agree fully with the otherwise very interesting predictions of Dmitry Orlov of the Centre for Strategic Research about the quick decline of Putin’s popularity, but I must admit that there is such a possibility. Although Russian society seems far less troubled now than it was in the 90s, when Yeltsin lost his popularity, the whole thing did indeed start in a similar way. And of all people Putin should have learned that no popularity can survive the decay of the roots of the system. And if these foundations rot, a top-heavy construction can make a very loud noise when falling.
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