Once an arbiter of competing interests and clans within Russia’s ruling elite, Vladimir Putin has firmly embedded himself in the reactionary camp, leading the establishment to think about a possible successor in the Kremlin. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argues that Putin’s hard line may spell his own political demise.

 

 

Even in the heyday of Vladimir Putin’s power, when observers described the system over which he presided as a “power vertical,” Russian politics was at root not a rigid hierarchy but a fluid conglomerate of key players, informal clans, and groups competing with one another for resources and influence. Putin inherited a state from Boris Yeltsin that was already marked by deep corruption and the merger of business and bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, and, above all, power and property. He created a power base of elites that comprised business oligarchs, the security services, the political apparatus centered in the presidential administration, and the United Russia party. Putin used his control over the media to create the popular myth that he had brought Russia back to world prominence, defended it from terrorists, and improved the population’s welfare. His public support legitimated these claims and gave him a crucial edge in elite politics.

Putin kept this system balanced by managing the elite’s internal differences and protecting its vested interests. His role was usually that of an adjudicator and moderator among key players, some of whom were less-than-enthusiastic supporters. When disputes arose, Putin usually had the last word. When key decisions were made, such as the firing of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov last fall, they were not necessarily made by Putin alone, since he was only the key figure in a collective. When the balance of power turned against someone like Serdyukov, a man with many enemies, Putin may have gone along with his removal to ease tensions in the system by replacing him with someone more well-regarded, such as Sergei Shoigu.

The elite competition is a clan struggle over resources and power within the framework of the current system.

By the end of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, many experts had come to doubt the long-term viability of Russia’s current economic model, which is based on raw materials exports and had fueled the country’s growth in the past decade. Various clans were at the time engaged in a tug-of-war over control of the energy sector. Putin’s return also came on the eve of a controversial privatization program in which a sharp struggle among the elite for money was likely to occur. Putin’s return to the Kremlin was thus partly an attempt to ensure that infighting among factions did not break out into open warfare and destabilize the system.

Instead, Putin’s return intensified elite differences. Some parts of the elite had pinned their hopes for political and economic reform on a second Medvedev term. Others had misgivings about Putin’s crackdown on the opposition protests against falsified Duma and presidential elections. The passage of the Magnitsky Act in the United States was viewed as a sign that Putin could no longer protect oligarch assets. Many top Russian officials apparently were embarrassed by the Kremlin’s passage of legislation that banned American citizens from adopting Russian children. The regime’s political base, United Russia, also began to decay as popular support for the leadership declined. Putin’s diminished popularity, meanwhile, sparked quiet elite speculation about a successor who could balance interests like the Putin of old. There has been speculation that elites sympathetic to the opposition quietly backed the street protests and hope to use them as leverage to force Putin to leave office early and yield the presidency to a successor—initially Medvedev, but later support shifted in favor of Kudrin.

 

The February 2012 rally in Moscow's Luzhniki stadium was an attempt to mobilize Vladimir Putin's supporters with nationalist rhetoric.

 

It must be emphasized, however, that this elite competition is not primarily between those advocating, in David Lane’s words, “state capitalism” and those advocating “more liberal market-oriented politicians and interests.” It is at its core a clan struggle over resources and power within the framework of the current system. “Liberals” like Medvedev and Kudrin, as Vladimir Milov has correctly pointed out, share the view of the siloviki (security service operatives) that the people are not independent citizens but objects for manipulation.

Putin’s own political prospects may ultimately become the victim of his current hard line.

A central question facing Putin, therefore, is to what extent his current hard line has damaged his ability to balance the disparate forces of the system. Respected INDEM political analyst Yuri Korgunyuk argues that Putin is no longer acting as an arbiter above the fray, but is backing conservatives and reactionaries in a “domestic cold war.” The regime adopts restrictive measures that defy the spirit of the law and “elementary common sense”; punishes its most defenseless citizens, orphans; and even prosecutes criminal charges against a dead man, Sergei Magnitsky, in a proceeding that goes against a prior decision of Russia’s own Constitutional Court. These moves are aligned not with the logic of the rule of law, Korgunyuk argues, but with the logic of a state of emergency, since legal methods can no longer guarantee the maintenance of power. In the long term, the regime is doomed to failure in this war, and Putin’s relatively high poll ratings, he concludes, will not last forever.

Indeed, Putin’s own political prospects may ultimately become the victim of his current hard line. His use of rhetoric emphasizing “external threats,” his reliance on the security agencies, and his introduction of an anticorruption campaign to achieve domestic objectives has strengthened the position of those in the leadership who oppose opening up the system, thereby restricting his own freedom of political maneuvering. Putin’s tactical response to the 2011–2012 protests—the mobilization of his supporters through an emphasis on conservative values, the promotion of social populism, and the use of nationalist rhetoric—is likely to do little to address Russia’s problems.

Any attempt that Putin might make to move back to the political center, moreover, could fall victim to contradictory logic: the Kremlin is fighting corruption in order to capitalize on a popular opposition theme, even as it needs to preserve the corrupt system in order to secure the loyalty of the elite against a background of decreasing legitimacy. An anticorruption campaign could also spark elite clashes, as elite groups try to settle scores and use the campaign to seize property and financial flows from rivals. Even the state propaganda machine is no longer effective: as the past eighteen months have shown, it can block the consolidation of an opposition movement in society, but can no longer solidify support for the government. As economic growth slows, Putin is confronted with new problems. But his old methods of solving them no longer work.

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