20 years under Putin: a timeline

The fundamental driver of Russian elite politics is the clan: a network of personal contacts that cuts across facile divisions between “state” and “oligarchs,” liberals” and “conservatives,” and “reformers” and “siloviki.” According to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, despite constant struggles between the clans, they haven’t been able to produce a political leader who would succeed to the current president.


Russia's Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov (left) represents the conservative, anti-Medvedev coalition; Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich belongs to the group of liberals who support Prime Minister Medvedev.


Most key issues the Kremlin faces are the results of struggle among these fiercely competitive alliances, which are constantly forming and reforming. These networks are built on many foundations: friendship, kinship, trust, greed, regional origins, the ability to inflict great harm (physical or otherwise), and the ability to reciprocate treatment or return a favor in kind. Vladimir Putin, who is associated with several overlapping, sometimes conflicting clans, acts as the ultimate arbiter in these struggles. His role is decisive when a dispute requires a simple yes or no verdict. It is less so when it seeks to change complex, deeply entrenched clan behavior. Putin has shaped but did not invent the clan system (though calling it a “system” suggests more coherence than is actually the case). In some form, it existed under Yeltsin and even in the late Soviet Union.

Russia’s elite clans operate behind the façade of formal political institutions—the courts, the presidency, and the Duma—sometimes strengthening them but frequently undercutting them as well (though on some issues—especially foreign policy—clan activity is generally low). Political parties play a secondary role. Instead of a functioning legal system, the clans have “understandings,” corruption, and bribery. Trust and reduced transactional risk are secured not by rule of law but by dynastic marriages between family members of key players, the mutual protection of shared secrets, and kompromat (compromising materials about public figures), which can not only threaten opponents, but also bind players together as co-conspirators. Some networks are more cohesive and organized than others. Horizontal connections are the strongest—family ties, marital relationships, and long-term bonds based on shared experiences, such as those between hometown friends or old army unit comrades. The looser, vertical relationships are based on shared work relationships or common economic interests.

In a recent article in the online journal Open Democracy titled “Clans are Marching,” historian Vladimir Pribylovsky observes that during the Medvedev presidency, Russia’s major clans were grouped into two opposing coalitions. One, led by Medvedev assistant Arkady Dvorkovich, longtime Kremlin insider Aleksandr Voloshin, and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, was loyal to and sought a second presidential term for Medvedev. The other, led by groups associated with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, supported a third term for Putin. The groupings also disagreed over taxation of oil extraction and exports, privatization, and state investment in the economy. After Putin’s return (handing Sechin a victory on the question of the presidential job swap), the struggle between the two coalitions continued over privatization and control of the energy sector.

Russia’s elite clans operate behind the façade of formal political institutions—the courts, the presidency, and the Duma—sometimes strengthening them but frequently undercutting them as well.

In the ensuing months, three factors further complicated clan politics: First, Dmitry Rogozin was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the military industrial complex. According to Pribylovsky, Rogozin’s appointment was welcomed by some military officers, members of the security services, and the defense industry lobby, which had previously followed Sechin. Second, Defense Minister Serdyukov’s corruption and personal misconduct galvanized a coalition, including Ivanov, Rogozin, and Alksandr Bastrykin, head of the powerful Investigations Committee, to close ranks against Serdyukov. As a result, Putin fired Serdyukov—the first time, according to Pribylovsky, that the president gave in to pressure to do what he did not want to—effectively getting rid of a trusted ally. Third, the opposition demonstrations in the streets of Moscow raised doubts in some elite quarters about the viability of the regime in general and Putin’s leadership in particular (indeed, Pribylovsky notes, some clan leaders reportedly saw Rogozin as an acceptable alternative to Putin should there be a popular revolution).

Today, the most important elite struggle in Russia is between the pro-Medvedev camp, which includes Voloshin and Dvorkovich, and a new anti-Medvedev coalition led by Ivanov, Rogozin, and Bastrykin. They are divided by economic and political disagreements: over how to privatize the lucrative telecommunications giant Rostelekom; about how to fill upcoming vacancies in regional governorships, federal agencies, and directorships of key state enterprises; and over who will be heir apparent to Putin, i.e., prime minister. Sechin, not close to either Ivanov or Rogozin, has lessened his attacks on the prime minister, presumably because removing Medvedev might lead to him being replaced by Ivanov, thus shaking up a regime in which Sechin has become extremely powerful. Sechin also opposes replacing Medvedev with a “systemic liberal,” like Alexei Kudrin or Dvorkovich, who might try to dismantle the system of state capitalism.

No matter how these clan struggles play out in the coming months, they tell us much about how Russia is ruled: First, all sides have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the current system, despite the fact that some participants use media relations and contacts abroad (especially in the West) to advance their causes and portray themselves as systemic reformers. Second, each coalition has its own share of internal conflicts and rivalries; neither security forces nor so-called liberals represent a cohesive group. Third, oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovich and other big businessman from the Yeltsin era still have considerable clout in business and in the bureaucracy. Fourth, ownership of property in a system with such weak property rights is less important than informal control over property flows. And finally, corruption, the engine of Russia’s economic development over the past decade, has become so high that it renders Russia’s political and economic systems increasingly dysfunctional.

Today, the most important elite struggle in Russia is between the pro-Medvedev camp, which includes Voloshin and Dvorkovich, and a new anti-Medvedev coalition led by Ivanov, Rogozin, and Bastrykin.

Putin is not in control of all of these processes, but his actions do affect the delicate balance of power among the clans. His current anticorruption campaign strengthens the Ivanov and Sechin wings of the system and threatens to shift the balance of power too far in their favor (under the informal clan system, when one figure becomes too strong, the others tend to move against him and the balance is maintained). If the anticorruption campaign gains too much traction, some factions might form situational alliances with systemic liberals to try to stop the drive. However fluid and informal Putin’s role in all this is, though, it appears stable for the time being. His detractors and doubters have so far failed to come up with an alternative leader who possesses the patriotic credentials to play the critical role of arbiter.

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