Signs of another transformation are gradually accumulating, and modifications to Mr. Putin’s role already disclose the faint outlines of Russia’s future political regime. Surprisingly, the man at the center is becoming, horribile dictu, less important. The regime he constructed has become self-regulating in many ways, while the power elite seems to have learned how to keep its war of all against all to a smoldering guerilla status rather than turning it into a war of extermination.
There have been no large-scale reforms for a long time; none are being planned, either. Even Alexei Kudrin, the former minister of finance who now heads the Center for Strategic Research – a man who enjoys Mr. Putin’s personal trust and has been charged with developing a strategy for his next presidential term in 2018-2024 – has come up with a very limited and purely technical set of proposals. As for the currently fashionable talk of the digital economy, blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and robotics, it seems to amuse even those who do the talking (especially Mr. Putin, who is known to shun computers).
President Putin’s direct interventions in political processes and conflicts among the ruling elite are becoming increasingly rare. Even the outrageous activities of Alexey Navalny have been allowed to proceed without any special hindrance. It is worth recalling that in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested precisely at the moment when he started traveling around the country, mobilizing his supporters — and was only released 10 years later. Mr. Navalny has done the same almost unimpeded by the authorities.
Conflicts between the siloviki and other influential groups
no longer require President Putin’s direct involvement
The conflicts between the siloviki (elite members from the security of military services) or other influential groups have not required President Putin’s direct involvement for some time. This situation is like trench warfare, with periodic raids and alarms, after which the sides scurry back to their dugouts. The recent row between Igor Sechin, the head of state-owned oil giant Rosneft and one of Russia’s most powerful people, and Minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukayev, is a case in point. Mr. Sechin engineered Mr. Ulyukayev’s fall by accusing him of extorting a $2 million bribe, and even participated in the latter’s arrest.
However, his plan went awry when Mr. Ulyukayev’s trial, contrary to Russian tradition, was thrown open to the media. The subsequent coverage did not present Mr. Sechin as a sympathetic figure, and his accusations are looking increasingly tenuous. Given Russia’s controlled media environment, this means some very powerful people must have been interested in such an outcome. This suggests there may be checks and balances at work to rein in even powerful officials like Igor Sechin.
From time to time, Mr. Putin brings to heel a few of his political and economic bosses with public reprimands. But this looks very much like a ritual to ensure that the president stays in the news and appears engaged with domestic issues. It is evident that his familiarity with the country’s real life has decreased. For example, during a recent “open-line” (the televised call-in shows that are Mr. Putin’s traditional format of communicating with the population), his most frequent reaction to citizens’ complaints about low wages, shoddy health care, and the complete lack of state assistance to disaster victims, was apparently unfeigned surprise and the lame exclamation: “That’s strange!”
The general impression is that Mr. Putin has assumed the attitude of a bored observer, someone who blesses the ideas of others rather than pushing any of his own or involving himself in the details. For instance, the grand-scale “renovation” launched by Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin, which calls for extrajudicial seizure of private property and the resettlement, including forced resettlement, of more than a million Muscovites, had been prepared for several years but was only presented to Mr. Putin at the time of its launch.
Moreover, even the president’s personal involvement has not stopped certain initiatives. Mr. Putin promised three times to protect one of Russia’s best private universities, the European University at St. Petersburg, from a campaign by local authorities and the Ministry of Education and Science to seize the institution’s property and strip it of its accreditation. Yet the campaign continues, and the university was evicted from its main building and lost the right to admit new students.
Equally telling was the style of this autumn’s purge of governors (so far, heads of 11 regions have been dismissed and replaced). Established protocol calls for a governor to announce his departure only after the President’s Office has issued the relevant decree. This time, however, some governors jumped the gun and announced their own resignations, without waiting for Mr. Putin. One of them, Ramazan Abdulatipov of Dagestan, quoted a local proverb in his own folksy explanation of the move:
Some people in Moscow like to shave hares while they’re still running. We’ve had problems with these people since the 1990s. It’s not good when they force unpopular decisions on the president.
It’s hard to overstate the boldness of Mr. Abdulatipov’s language. Claiming that any kind of decision could be “forced” on Mr. Putin is not just bad form, or mauvais ton, as the French would say – in Russia’s system, it is something approaching lese majeste.
The housecleaning of regional managers (the second this year — eight governors were dismissed in the spring) is part of a broader process, as a new generation comes to power. This changing of the guard started at the federal level, and has now spread beyond Moscow.
Machine politics is the only reality conceivable to Mr. Putin's new technocrats
Most of the “new people” are cut from the same cloth: close to 40 years old (the youngest minister is 35, the youngest governor 31), well-educated (often an MBA), careers spent mostly or entirely within the confines of the state administration, and a rational, technocratic mindset. When the official Kremlin photos of the new governors of Samara and Nizhny Novogorod were published, it was remarked that they even looked identical with their wire-rim glasses and micro-dot ties. “Find 10 differences. Or at least one,” ran the internet meme.
Most importantly, though, this is a generation whose adult lives and professional careers have been spent entirely under Mr. Putin. Unlike their predecessors, they do not possess any alternative administrative or political experience. Mr. Putin’s machine politics on the national scale (not its regime-specific idiosyncrasies, but the basic features of a political machine and the political culture it fosters) is the only reality conceivable to them. Accordingly, these “new people” will direct all their gifts and energy – consciously and subconsciously – toward keeping the machine in working order.
Force of inertia
In this situation, the question that absorbs all observers and participants in Russian politics is not all that important. The question is: will Mr. Putin run in the 2018 election to serve one last term, or will he suggest a successor to take over the country? But the main thing is for the election to happen. In either case, the new era starts the day after the ballots are counted.
The main parameters of the post-Putin order are clear. These parameters are not necessarily what Mr. Putin or his successor would want, but they are beyond the power of either to change. If one were to make a short list, it would look something like this:
- Russia will remain a petrostate with a stagnant (but not collapsing) economy.
- The state administration will stay highly centralized, though gradual relaxation of tight control over the regions is possible, or even probable, since centralization has already been pushed beyond all reasonable limits.
- Basic democratic institutions will be maintained, if only as a façade. If they have not already been removed, why do so now? At best, some devolution of power may occur.
- Certain civil institutions may preserve a significant amount of autonomy, including those directly or indirectly connected with the opposition. However, their position will be unstable and their prospects of survival precarious.
The most influential political actors will be more interested
in preserving the status quo than changing it
- Justice will remain selective and the court system subservient, because the most influential political actors will be more interested in preserving the status quo than changing it.
- Infighting among the siloviki will continue in the same subdued mode. The “war against corruption” – an important epiphenomenon of these battles – will continue and even intensify. None of this will curb rampant corruption in the least.
- The so-called “parliamentary opposition’ will revert to purely decorative status. There may well be new projects to replace Just Russia or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, but it will amount to rearranging props on a decrepit stage set. The non-parliamentary opposition may become more radicalized and restive, but will not gain representation on the federal or, most likely, on the local level.
The rather static picture described above does not mean that Russia will lack for turmoil and uncertainty. Sources of both include Chechnya and its exotic leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the status of Crimea; Alexey Navalny as a joker whose future role in Russian politics is yet to be defined; the huge disparity of power and wealth between Moscow and the regions; and conflicts within the state-society-church triangle.
On the other hand, what modern state does not have comparable dilemmas? The important thing is that none of these flashpoints seriously threatens the survival of the regime. The simultaneous detonation of all these land mines would be a different matter, but that seems improbable for now.
Give peace a chance
It would appear, therefore, that Mr. Putin’s absence or his elevation to a purely symbolic presence would change little in Russia. There is one exception, however.
An area where serious changes can be expected is foreign policy. There is a widespread and growing feeling that focusing on confrontation with the West is a policy that has run its course. Such is the view not just of the expert community and the elites, but among the general population as well.
It has become increasingly evident that Russia has no alternative to cooperating with the West. The widely publicized “turn to the East” has remained a propaganda fiction. Preserving the current state of isolation is beneficial only to the military-industrial complex, the security services and the agrarian sector. All other actors and interest groups, especially Russia’s all-important oil and gas community, are weary of confrontation and impatient for it to end. A politician who could play peacemaker in such conditions would make history. The task is made easier because no isolation lasts forever.
The man who set Russia on the road to confrontation with the West
will have difficulty retracing his steps
It is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin as such a peacemaker. The man who started on the road to confrontation will have difficulty retracing his steps, especially with prejudice against him running so deeply in the West. To clear the way for a new detente, Mr. Putin would have to remove himself from the everyday conduct of domestic and foreign policy – perhaps to some lofty but symbolic perch. This is not a completely implausible scenario. Vladimir Putin has surprised the world many times, and it is a skill he is likely to have retained. A new leader would have a much easier time implementing this program. It is even clear which irritant should be removed first – eastern Ukraine. Crimea can be left for the time being, though it might come – albeit much later.
This might open a “window of opportunity” for the West, one that would be important not to miss. If Moscow’s overtures are met with hostility or indifference, if no counterproposals – even cautious ones – are made, Russia would sink back into the anti-Western resentment fostered by the USSR’s inglorious collapse that eventually overcome Mr. Putin and almost all of his fellow countrymen.
The next spiral of resentment could be deeper and more aggressive, and the next “window of opportunity” might take a very long time to appear. Russia would again be perceived as a threat to civilization, but this time the truly dangerous thing is that it might even become one.
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