20 years under Putin: a timeline

According to a recent study by Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, Vladimir Putin is gradually losing control over the political system and is no longer considered an undisputed arbiter by different power groups. Donald Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses the report and draws his own conclusions.



In his classic study of urban politics, Yale professor Robert Dahl asked a fundamental question about political power: “Who governs?” He answered that many interest groups compete in the political arena and the government acts as a mediator among these groups. Vladimir Lenin, a very different observer, posed a fundamentally different question about political power: “Who, whom? (Kto kogo?)”—i.e., who dominates whom? For Lenin, all compromises and promises among political actors are just expedients: tactical maneuvers in the struggle for the power.
Russia today is ruled by a hybrid political regime with features that both Dahl and Lenin would understand. It is marked by formally representative institutions (though they are weak) in a state of permanent tension with informal, authoritarian politics and corrupt, overlapping bureaucracies functioning largely beyond effective control. In order to maintain stability, it has been necessary for someone—usually Russian President Vladimir Putin—to regulate the interests and conflicts among various subunits and members of the elite, and between the elite and the society at large. This prevents tensions from building before they reach the surface, potentially destroying the entire system. But strains sometimes arise. Such management, moreover, can be made effective only by manipulating the system’s contradictions, thereby damaging the regime’s legitimacy. The regime’s rigging of the 2011-2012 elections, for example, led to massive street protests in Moscow. It is also clear that Putin’s ability to act as an arbiter is sometimes constrained by the forces around him.

A study by the Stanislav Belkovsky Foundation (FSB) published in December argues that the system is a marked by a “horizontal” alignment of power—multiple centers where critical financial and political resources are concentrated—and a mythical “vertical” alignment, with Putin at the top. Russia is a “monetokratia” (by which the authors mean a patrimonial system), where money is all-powerful.  In 2010 authors of an earlier FSB report correctly foresaw a period of political instability in Russia driven by the alienation of the country’s “active minority” (its growing middle class, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg) and the disenchantment of elites with the system. After the street protests in 2011–12, the Kremlin restored order through a series of moves designed to restore the balance: a mix of concessions (a return to direct gubernatorial elections and an anticorruption campaign, among other measures) and tough measures (banning foreign financing of NGOs, more restrictive rules on foreign options, and cracking down on the “nonsystemic opposition”). These moves, however, have not satisfied the active minority, the new FSB report claims, so the potential for instability remains.

The study argues that elite divisions have become more apparent in recent months, as some players no longer observe the ground rules of leadership behavior developed during the Putin era, such as not going public with major grievances. New players have appeared who want to participate in the redistribution of power, assets, and influence, but the country’s economic slowdown intensifies conflicts because there are fewer assets to divide. Conflicts are also more open because the regime is weaker than in the past (as is Putin’s authority), and is less able to maintain the hybrid balance. The risk of instability is thus higher. (It should be noted that major elite differences are not new, having marked Kremlin politics in 2004–05, in the aftermath of Yukos executive Mikhail Khodorkhovsky’s arrest, and the jockeying for the position of Putin’s successor in 2008, after he decided not to stand for a third term).

The Belkovsky report highlights four key leadership conflicts in the past year. First, the battle over the Medvedev government and the positioning of possible Putin successors for 2018. Rivals have dealt several blows to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, including the resignations of Defense Minister Anatoily Serdyukov and Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, the Skolkovo affair and the liquidation of the news agency RIA Novosti, headed by Medvedev ally Svetlana Mironyuk. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, bypassed by Putin for Medvedev in the 2008 succession, is also no doubt interested in seeing Medvedev depart. In his Federal Assembly address, Putin gave the government more assignments, but implied that the cabinet would not be dismissed at this time. Naming a new prime minister, according to the Belkovsky report, would send an early political signal that Putin might retire from the political scene in 2018. And Putin has no interest in being seen as a lame duck.

While Putin is by far the most important leader in Russia, he is not all-powerful, and in many ways he is a hostage of the system. As each day passes, Putin has less and less control over the situation in the country and among elites.

Second, the conflict over the fate of former Defense Minister Serdyukov. As an outsider to the entrenched Defense Ministry bureaucracy, Serdyukov was well suited to carrying out Putin’s plans for military reform. But in doing so, Sedyukov made many enemies. Sergey Ivanov seems interested in using the corruption charges against Serdyukov as an example to demonstrate the seriousness of Russia’s anticorruption campaign, while simultaneously using it to divert attention from other instances of elite corruption.

Third, the struggle to force longtime Putin ally Vladimir Yakunin out of his position as head of the vast Russian railway system. Last summer an order signed by Medvedev removing Yakunin from his post was published and then declared a fake. But the FSB report argues that several of Yakunin’s commercial rivals were behind the order, with the struggle likely to continue as Yakunin’s contract expires in the fall of 2014 and powerful rivals want a piece of the sector.

And fourth, the controversy over opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny and the Moscow city elections. The Belkovsky report says that Medvedev did not want Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to increase his stature as a national politician and possible rival presidential candidate by securing an overwhelming victory against a weak pool of contenders. Medvedev thus worked to free Navalny after his conviction so that he could run in the mayoral race and reduce the momentum Sobyanin would receive from a landslide victory. The report claims that disagreements between the Investigations Committee and the Medvedev camp accounted for Navalny’s confused arrest and quick release. In any event, according to the Belkovsky report, Medvedev’s strategem was ultimately successful: the mayor gave up his ambition to succeed Putin and concentrated instead on Moscow’s problems.

The report concludes that while Putin is by far the most important leader in Russia, he is not all-powerful, and in many ways he is a hostage of the system. As each day passes, Putin has less and less control over the situation in the country and among elites. This view is held by more than just the Belkovsky Foundation. One recent article, reportedly removed from the Ura.ru website at the request of the presidential administration, argues that Putin is losing his status as the main mediator in the competition between Kremlin clans.

Since last summer, however, Putin has tried to bolster his role as arbiter and maintain the systemic balance of forces. The president has sought to reassure “systemic liberals” that he has not leaned too far toward hardline factions since his return to the Kremlin. He has “balanced” hardline Investigations Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin, for example, and released Mikhail Khodorkhovsky. Putin has also tried to bolster the system’s legitimacy by liberalizing party registration, somewhat expanding competition, and declaring an anticorruption campaign (actions all taken within narrow limits intended to preserve the balance of power within the regime).

From the beginning of his third term, moreover, Putin has been searching for a more optimal administrative model. But his freedom to maneuver nevertheless appears to be narrowing. His ability to rule effectively is frustrated not only by the demands of competing clans within the government, but also by the absence of a strategic vision for the country. As one of Putin’s longstanding tools of rule—the loyalty of his subordinates—weakens, he appears to be tilting toward “manual control,” i.e., directly overseeing the government himself. In recent weeks, Putin has acted as the de facto prime minister by presiding over government meetings himself, apparently reversing his previous habit of endlessly criticizing the government even though he was not ready to fire ministers. But while this approach may ensure more effective implementation of a few decrees, it is unlikely to compensate for the fundamental shortcomings of the system.