From referee to politician

Vladimir Putin will start his third, and, quite probably, as many say, last presidential term tomorrow. I’m clearly more inclined, than not, to agree with this statement, but as the last couple of years taught me better, I prefer not to make hot-headed predictions. Still, as I have blogged several times already, the third term of Putin will mark a significantly different era in Russian politics. Not because there are changes going on in Russia, but because it will be Putin, instead of Medvedev, who has to respond to and live with these changes as President. And the main novelty will be the nature of Putin’s role in this new system which will require him to be much more of a political leader than a pivotal player, a technical centerpiece.

There have essentially been two ways of political power in Putin’s Russia. One is clientelism coupled with divide et impera – the other I call ‘controlling the tide’. Both have been used by Putin. What I mean by the first one is obvious. In the latter part of his second term as well as during the tandem years he created conflicting structures within the elite (e.g. the Investigative Committee vs. the General Prosecutor, or the Anti-Drugs Agency vs. the FSB) with which he satisfied the hunger of his proxies and let him be the pivotal, deciding player. On the other hand, right at the beginning of his first term, setting himself against the legacy of the chaotic 90s and building up “national champions” he also ‘controlled tides’. The gist of this kind of strategy is to make others believe that circumstances are irrevocably changing in one certain direction and they cannot do anything but go with the flow. In other words, one player makes all the others believe that he will take one certain decision, thus setting the game and thereby considerably narrowing their available options, making them less erratic. While the first strategy is about deciding, the other one is about rule-setting.

Brian Whitmore’s latest podcast the other day set me thinking. Kirill Kobrin pointed out a very important circumstance, namely that the elite that has acquired considerable wealth in the last decade may like to have more calculable rules in order to protect that property which in turn might necessarily point in the direction of building up a functioning rule of law. I only partly share the skepticism of Mark Galeotti about this actually happening. Under the present circumstances and judging from what we’ve seen before, it’s indeed not a very plausible outlook for the soon-to-be-President. A strong legal regime without adequate counterweights would indeed put the elite on a (too) stable ground and provide the circumstances for their building their own power base. Putin surely does not want that.

Nevertheless, as the “stabilizing chaos” i.e. the rivalry between the different groups of the elite has started to develop centrifugal elements lately, Putin cannot just allow himself to resort to the old tools and build up a new balance either. He does not have the adequate administrative resources, not even as President. Eventually, he will have to make room for changes, but he will have to make sure that: 1.) he remains the ultimate guarantee of rules in the new system; 2.) changes firmly point into some direction, because the mere person of Putin as a driving force is not enough anymore.

This is why I think that Putin will again have to become a rule-setter instead of a decider. I also think that he is aware of this. The decision to assume the presidency again was already a signal that Putin was not feeling comfortable any more in the PM’s seat (and not a decision he took four years ago, as he claimed): even though he remained decider, he was increasingly afraid of the erratic behavior of the elite, of being circumvented, or of having to face faits accomplis. The only way out of this situation is to always take the first step.

Institutionally this means that conflicting structures, at least in important institutions must be abolished. I’ve had a Twitter exchange recently about the apparent rise in importance of the Investigative Committee (SK) in relation to the Prosecutor’s Office. I strongly suspect that the latter will be increasingly marginalized or even taken over by a person sharing the same interests as the head of the SK, Alexander Bastrykin. I also think that the same is going to happen to other conflicting structures. There has been a lot of talk also about the unification of intelligence bodies which would also point into the same direction. Not to mention the concentration of the “conservative” elite, i.e. the siloviki in the Presidential Administration, under the immediate control of Putin. Turning East Siberia and the Far East into a “presidential colony” is another evidence of problematic issues being put under the competence of an “extended PresAd”. To me, this implies a clearer distribution of assets and tasks among the heavyweights. This is coupled with a stronger separation of the three levels of government: next to a conservative PresAd, we’ll most probably have a revamped “conflict” government (possibly stuffed with fresh-looking minds like Arkady Dvorkovich, Mikhail Slobodin, Pavel Astakhov or Yevgeni Yuryev), acting as an engine of the changes, and a slightly more democratic local level.

So far, though, Putin seems to lack the second ingredient: putting an unquestionable ideology behind the new system that keeps all centrifugal elements at bay by reminding the elite that no one can swim against the tide. Rigging an election that would have been easily won anyway was enough to send a signal to “Putin’s constituency”, the elite, about his being still in charge, but he cannot go on with this. For obvious reasons, he cannot contrast any new set of rules against the old one either. Nevertheless, building some sort of rule of law citing economical concerns might indeed turn out to be a suitable core principle for this newfound ideology. But we’re far from being there yet.

What we’ve seen so far were only short-term steps from the part of the new Presidential Administration. The mass replacement of governors in problematic regions, for example, will only postpone problems, but will not solve or prevent them. As I have blogged before, any devolution of the central power will somehow strengthen the political self-consciousness of the people. The same goes for all the other short-term decisions Putin has taken notably in the Presidential campaign.

Again, it looks to me that Putin is well aware that he must again be a rule-setter rather than a decider. But he and his team is seemingly clueless about where and how to create a tide and about becoming political again. Ironically, the only person I deem capable of solving such a complex problem was recently demoted exactly because his plans were not compatible with conservative interests. He’s called Vladislav Surkov.

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