Maxim Trudolubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, one of Russia’s most important dailies. He was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015 and has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Maxim also writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute. Maxim is the co-author of the Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine. His new book The Tragedy of Property: Private Life, Ownership and the Russian State will be out soon.
New Order, “True Faith,” Substance, 1987.
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What is going on between the siloviki and what does it means for Putin and post-Putin Russia? It’s old news by now but a quick recap of the story is necessary. The siloviki’s infighting became public in early October when FSB agents arrested the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov at Domodedovo Airport. The FSB accused Bulbov of taking bribes and conducting illegal wiretaps of 53 journalists and businessmen. But it also turns out that Bulbov had been heading an investigation of the Moscow furniture outfit Tri Kita for smuggling goods from China without paying import taxes. It is believed that there are top FSB agents providing “protection” to Tri Kita. In a statement released by his lawyers, Bulbov said, “I insist that the legal action against me, including my arrest and the unsubstantiated charges, as well as the ongoing media frenzy, are due to my part in the investigation into the Tri Kita [furniture chain] and the smuggling of Chinese goods. FSB officials acted on their fear of new facts coming to light.” The judges either didn’t think so or are in the FSB’s pocket because they upheld his arrest as legal in Moscow’s Basmanny Court on Tuesday.
In Russia, the arrests of top agents from one security organ by another is never really about stopping crime and corruption. As most quickly noted, they are a sign of clan warfare within Putin’s government. And clan warfare it is. In response to the arrests, FSKN head Viktor Cherkesov published his now famous “We must not allow warriors to become traders” statement. Breaking with protocol, he decided to make the feud public because it was “better to open the abscess right away than to wait for gangrene to set in.” He also gave an additional warning: “There can be no winners in this war, there is too much at stake.”
Cherkesov’s words opened the floodgates. Over the next few weeks former KGB/FSB notables echoed of his calls for unity in the conservative Zavtra. Putin finally stepped in. He scolded Cherkesov in Kommersant for airing chekist dirty laundry in public. “If I were in the place of people who defended the honour of the company, I would not blame all round, especially with the help of mass media,” Putin told the paper. He then gave Cherkesov a promotion.
But Putin’s intervention might not have been enough. There is now speculation that the poisoning of Konstantin Druzhenko and Sergei Lomako in St. Petersburg is yet another episode in the clan war. (One should remember that when Yuri Shchekochikhin, the deputy editor of Novaya gazeta turned up dead in 2003, he was investigating FSB connections to Tri Kita.) Druzhenko and Lomako were no drunks as police originally thought when they stumbled upon the two men’s bodies. Both were agents of Cherkesov’s FSKN. According to Alexander Mikhailov of the Drug Contol Service, “poison was involved” but what exactly what kind of bane required more tests. The murders are another threatening sign that the clan feud might erupt in open and bloody warfare. It’s like 1936 all over again. Well, maybe not exactly.
But to return to the initial question: what does all this mean? A good place to go for some answers is Jonas Berstein of the Eurasian Daily Monitor. Bernstein has published a few articles dealing with the subject. One just the other day on the Druzhenko and Lomanko murders and another today analyzing a commentary by Vladimir Milov published in Gazeta.ru on October 22.
In both articles, Bernstein argues that the infighting has intensified because each clan is jostling for position in a post-Putin Russia. So far Putin has acted as a mediator but there is a growing belief that his role as Godfather might be waning. So much so that Bernstein entertains a possibility drawn up by Milov: the infighting is “reminiscent of what happened during 1990-91, when “Gorbachev’s conservative circle gradually strengthened their influence on decision-making.” The way he breaks it down is as follows:
Today, the siloviki in Putin’s administration have already accumulated “real power,” meaning that Putin can no longer give them orders and must instead reach “an understanding” with them, Milov wrote. “They are in many respects dissatisfied with the essence of the policy [currently] being carried out, which still contains rather many elements of liberalism (above all in the economic sphere),” he wrote. “They have begun to express this dissatisfaction in public and to propose their prescriptions for solving this problem.”
While not predicting a hard-line coup, Milov wrote that Putin, like Gorbachev, will increasingly have to heed the demands of the hardliners in his administration. “The prescriptions proposed by the insiders of Putin’s circle are already clear – spend the Stabilization Fund to support enterprises …, intensify regulation of the economy, regiment the entire country under the Chekist corporation,” he wrote. “If we want stability in Russia, it would be better if these people sat quietly and didn’t thrust themselves forward. However, they do not want to sit quietly … and Putin already cannot force them to be silent. Such an evolution of the system of governance he built arouses serious fears for Russia’s future.”
For those who think that the results of Russia’s Presidential Elections are written in stone might do well to pay attention to the power play taking place between the factions within, possibly until now, Putin’s most ardent allies. We might be witnessing another example where Russia’s elites bust up the state’s stability through their own horizontal power intrigues. You can pick whatever historical allegory you want to draw conclusions or lessons. There are many to chose from with their own particular dynamic. The only historical constant is that Russia’s ruling class might be a class with a consciousness of itself but not certainly not necessarily one for itself.Post Views: 158
The BBC World Service has done a number of radio documentaries on Russia and Putin. The Kremlin and the World is a four part series on Russia’s relationship with its “near abroad,” energy politics, Europe, and the United States. The second series, After the KGB, chronicles the fall and rise of the Russian secret service since the collapse of communism. In addition to all this, BBC has set up a special website called the Putin Project. Therein are several reports and interviews on the social, cultural, political, and economic state of Russia. You can also find more Russia goodies on BBC News‘ Resurgent Russia page.
Now that your ears are sufficiently stimulated, you can get your eyes titillated with PBS Frontline‘s special report Putin’s Plan.Post Views: 124
Two steps back, one step forward. It’s not the Watusi. It’s certainly not the hokey-pokey. Perhaps it’s a waltz. Whatever the dance step Vladimir Putin is leading Russia’s political future with, it’s certainly keeping everyone on their toes. Let’s just recap the last few weeks. Prime Minster Mikhail Fradkov resigns only to be replaced by a seemingly unknown technocrat and Putin ally Viktor Zubkov. This move caused many to immediately shoot Zubkov to the top of the successor list. Others were more cautious, seeing Zubkov’s becoming Prime Minister as simply a way to Putin to have an ace in the hole against the Kremlin clans. Zubkov is said to be an outsider of sorts and not beholden to any clan, that is of course if you don’t think Putin has a clan of his own. Further Zubkov, as the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, has access to what RFE/RL’s Victor Yasmann calls “a unique political weapon“: intimate knowledge about the legal and illegal flow of capital in and outside of Russia. In Zubkov, Putin has his own financial spy.
But Zubkov’s nomination was only the beginning. A new PM surely meant a new government, and the speculation over which fresh faces would inhabit the cabinet kept everyone on edge. But last week’s announcement proved hardly climactic. No one was surprised by the sacking of German Gref and Mikhail Zurabov and the removal of Vladimir Yakovlev, the head of Regional Development, made no stir since no one cares about regional development anyway. Most were surprised that Gref and Zurabov lasted so long. The appointment of two women, Tatyana Golikova to replace Zurbaov as Health and Social Development Minister and Elvira Nabiullina to take over for Gref as Trade Minister, caused some statements about the cabinet’s feminization. Who would have ever though Putin was a partisan for affirmative action. The Presidential cabinet got two new ministries, the revival of the Federal Fishing Agency to be headed by Andrey Krainy and a committee on youth, the head of which has yet to be announced. (I suspect Nashi’s Vasili Yakamenko will eventually fill this position.) On the whole, however, the big surprise was that there was no surprise, though according to Kommersant’s Andrey Kolesnikov Putin even kept his own ministers on pins and needles as to their future until the last minute.
Though the Russian government’s “reshuffle” was lackluster, Zubkov, surely seasoned by his years on the kolkhoz, already appears to be a force to be reckoned with. His first cabinet meeting began with a session of “criticism” for the government’s failures to implement reforms, infighting, and neglect of fulfilling regional requests for resources. Zubkov then pulled an old arrow from the quiver of Soviet governance and ordered his minister’s underlings to the provinces. Next, Zubkov made a tried and true Russian political move. He began an anti-corruption campaign, calling for the Duma to adopt an anti-corruption law that’s been languishing since 1992. As of now the Russian Criminal Code has no laws explicitly defining corruption. And though anti-corruption campaigns are usually no more than a populist ruse, (anti-corruption and anti-bureacratism were favorites in Soviet times), Zubkov might have actually scared the Russian elite into thinking that he’s serious. A few weeks ago Zubkov created the Investigation Committee under the Justice Ministry especially for investigating corruption. The Committee took its first casualty on last Thursday when a man dressed in black pumped three bullets, including one “control shot,” into Nazim Kaziakhmedov, a chief investigator on the Committee, as he left the Bakinskii Dvorik restaurant in northeastern Moscow.
Zubkov’s exhibition of a strong hand in governance only propelled his status as a possible successor to Putin. So far he’s deflected reporters inquiries, saying that wants to score some successes as PM before moving to something bigger. Assumed front runners Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev now seem to have taken a back seat in the presidential “chatter.” Even Putin threw his own curve ball or sorts. After praising Zubkov as “highly professional,” “a man of integrity with sound judgment, responsibility, and wisdom” and “a man of strong character and expensive experience” (platitudes that are sure to spark jealously in his inner circle), Putin contended that “there are at least five people can run for president and can be elected. It’s good that another person [Viktor Zubkov] has appeared. Russian citizens will have a selection of candidates to choose from.” Who the five are, besides Zubkov, he didn’t say. Interestingly, Boris Kagarlitsky thinks Putin is just winging it as a means to keep it interesting.
And here today we witness the newest Putinian dance step. United Russia’s party congress has begun, an event that will surely be overshadowed in the West by its fascination with political nobodies like Garry Kasparov. And lo and behold who is sitting at the top of United Russia’s Duma candidate list? Why it’s Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself! Putin gleefully accepted the nomination from the party in power. This of course immediately sparked questions about him becoming Prime Minister after the elections. “As far as heading the government is concerned – this is a quite realistic suggestion but it is still too early to think about it,” Putin answered. According to the Financial Times, while some might argue that Putin the Duma candidate is all part of an elaborate plot to bring back Putin the President in 2012 and thereby trampling Russian democracy for the umpteenth time, there is one class that will be happy: the vampires of the global financial class. “Irrespective of one’s view of Putin’s democratic credentials, markets respect the stability and prosperity he has brought to Russia, and should react positively to the latest development,” says Tim Ash, an economist at Bearns Steerns in London. And why wouldn’t it? Russia might be, in the words of Dmitri Trenin, a “very rough, brutal and cheerful capitalism”, but it is capitalist nonetheless. And the only capitalists that hem and haw about Russia lack of “democracy” are usually the ones losing their shirts. Lots and lots of people are making lots and lots of money, meaning that Putin is and will continue to be good for business. Having him close to the Russia’s political helm in the future will no doubt put many capitalists in Russia and abroad at ease. So if Putin wants to take one step forward after taking to steps back, there is no doubt in my mind that some will be urging him to take a few steps more.Post Views: 195