Another Medvedev “Liberal” Purged


Another member of Medvedev’s camp has left the building. Sergei Guriev, the renown economist, Medvedev advisor, and rector of the New Economic School in Moscow has fled to France after being questioned by the Investigative Committee about the “Yukos Affair.” What drove him abroad has become a familiar pattern. According to two Guriev confidants, he fled Russia to avoid criminal prosecution by the Investigative Committee. Putin’s oprichniniki raided the NESh looking for Guriev on suspicion that the economic institute received money from Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another case of embezzlement, it seems. Guriev also has a long rap sheet of silovik designated “crimes.” He defended Khodorkovsky and called his prosecution a sham. The New Economic School receives money from abroad, hosted a Barack Obama speech in 2009, and has regular contact with US Ambassador Michael McFaul. In the atmosphere of “foreign agents,” it’s surprising that it took Bastrykin this long to break down RESh’s doors. But perhaps Guriev’s real sin is that he’s working with Aleksei Navalny, the currently reigning enemy of the people. The Kremlin, of course, has denied Guriev’s politics has anything to do with anything.

Once again purging in Russia is not just what you do, it’s who you’re connected with. If all of this is true, Guriev becomes another “Medvedev liberal” turned enemy of the people for cozying with the opposition.

Granted, it’s all still a theory, but is running with it. In an article, “The Guriev Case: How Liberals Stopped Being Fellow Travelers,” Boris Grozovskii argues that the Investigative Committee’s targeting of Guriev is another strike by the siloviki to purge out the technocrats. “The siloviki no longer need the services of disloyal specialists.” This evokes a tragic historical reminder:

Liberal economists, who up to this point were former “fellow travelers” and aides, like the bourgeois specialists during NEP, still haven’t been accused of being “wreckers,” but they are already becoming “internal enemies.” The siloviki, who reigned in the background of the Orange-democratic threat, are getting rid of more of them. It’s like when the engineers, technicians and economists of pre-revolutionary Russia became no longer necessary during the transition from a quasi-market to a command economy in the beginning in the 1930s. Therefore the [siloviki] are eating up the liberals.

For Grozovskii, the Investigative Committee’s case against Guriev is analogous to the unmasking of the “Counter-revolutionary SR-Kulak group of ChayanovKondratiev” in 1930.

Is Grozovskii engaging in historical hysterics or just highlighting another casualty in silovik war on corruption liberals? Either way, every week another from Medvedev’s connected technocrat suddenly gets routed.

On Putin’s Bulldogs


This week’s Russia Magazine! column, “Putin’s Bulldogs and Their Bones,”

In reference to the succession struggle after Stalin’s death, Winston Churchill famously compared the opaqueness of Kremlin politics to a “bulldog fight under a rug” where “an outsider only hears the growling and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who has won.” Churchill’s poignant witticism has been Kremlinologists’ seer stone since. And for good reason. Kremlinology resembles alchemy of old—one part science, one part magic, and two parts faith. Given this concoction, it’s no wonder the interpretation of Kremlin politics rests on deciphering growls, barks, and snarls.

There’s a lot of growling coming out of Moscow of late, and the bones are steadily piling on the living room floor. The grandees in Putin’s inner circle are once again entwined in a dance macabre, and as they spin, their movements unleash centrifugal forces that reverberate throughout the power elite. The endgame may be as nebulous as the politics that march to it, but the bulldogs’ muffled snarls are getting louder, generating questions whether Putin can keep a firm grip their leashes.


The Cold Civil War


May 6 is the first anniversary of the Bolotnaya protests that erupted in violence. Twenty-eight people and possibly more await prosecution. Bolotnaya has also served as the impetus to link Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov to a wider conspiracy where he, Leonid Razvozzhaev (who confessed then retracted it claiming it was given under torture), and Konstantin Lebedev (who has confessed and is cooperating with the Investigative Committee) of planning a coup financed with Georgian (i.e. American) money. I discussed the significance of Bolotnaya on the Power Vertical podcast on Friday. There I stressed that what Bolotnaya represents is Putin adopting Stalin’s ominous maxim made in reference to the 1928 Shakhty Trial: “We have internal enemies. We have external enemies.”

While I caution against any comparison between Putin and Stalin, the existence of the internal/external enemy duumvirate is clearly apparent. In fact,‘s Aleksandr Morozov put it at the center of his article, “Cold War-2013: What Grew Out of the 2012 Protests.” Morozov makes some interesting observations about the state of things a year after Bolotnaya.


As I alluded on the podcast, the internal/external enemy is the guiding principle of Putin and Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin’s effort to discredit the opposition. Interestingly, however, there are indications the circle of internal-external enemies might be expanding to include Medvedev’s circle.

This last point was the subject of a recent Novaya gazeta article that connected the criminal investigation against Aleksey Beltyukov, Senior Vice President of the Skolkovo Fund, and the payment of $750,000 to Just Russia Duma deputy and street oppositionist Ilya Ponomarev to Dmitry Medvedev (who is the face of Skolkovo) and Vladislav Surkov (who supervises Skolkovo). Essentially, paying Ponomarev an enormous amount of money for ten lectures and scientific research is an “indirect but quite transparent hint” that Medevdev and Surkov are funding the street opposition.

In a similar vein, Morozov notes an effort to connect Medvedev’s “liberalism” and “foreign agents.” This is a further indication that the tandem is dead (did anyone think it was still alive?) and that Medvedev is a “delinquent member of the family” without “the means to win forgiveness.” Hence, the campaign to discredit him and his circle. In one of the stranger facts, a Yandex search for “Dvorkovich is a British agent,” i.e. Arkady Dvorkovich, Medevdev’s right-hand man and silovik mandarin Igor Sechin’s arch-nemesis, unearths 120,000 links. Even weirder is that this claim is attributed to American freakazok-in-chief, Lyndon LaRouche. Yes, that is how kooky the smear campaign has gotten. The message however muddled is clear: Medvedev is not one of “us.”

The extension of the umbrella of Otherness goes further. Morozov explains there is an effort to dehumanize oppositionists of all stripes. “The enemy must lose human features and be turned into “nonhumans”, beasts, insects, ‘livestock,’ and ‘larva,’” he writes. This effort to dehumanize the enemy is harrowing for anyone who knows Soviet history. Things haven’t gotten to an Andrei Vyshinsky level of dehumanization, though. Vyshinsky was a maestro of bestial adjectives. During the show trials of the 1936-38, the Soviet state prosecutor cast the defendants as rabid dogs, venomous snakes, swine, among others, who “sold themselves to enemy intelligence services.” This is why the “foreign agent” label for Russian NGOs stirs so much controversy, ire, disgust, and foreboding.

Morozov, however, has a larger characterization of the state of things beyond of the friend-enemy distinction. True to his article’s title, Morozov sees the situation between the authorities and the opposition as a “cold civil war.” And, in his opinion, this only gives Putin the advantage.

It gives [Putin] the possibility to mobilize the “People’s Front,” a new form of political and electoral support. A year after the inauguration, the features of the new regime are clearly replacing the conception of rule through the “dominant party.” If Putin ruled in his first and second terms relying on the electoral and ideological pseudo-competition between United Russia and other parties respecting the norms of “illiberal democracy,” then there will now be another system.

In order for the People’s Front to work it’s necessary to permanently keep non-party “forms of the enemy” alive. The People’s Front isn’t facing off against local party structures, but against a global plutocracy with a fifth column inside the country.

Those who protested a year ago against electoral violations and spoke for institutional reforms think that political inclusion is better than exclusion. But it will be hard to adapt them if you consider them “enemies of the state” and not loyal citizens. But it’s necessary to look at reality in the eyes. There is a “front” and there are “the people.”

And if we accept Morozov’s diagnosis of the current conjecture, the internal-external enemy matrix will be around for a long time. In fact, it seems to be a basis of Putin’s domestic rule. If true, this places the opposition in a complicit position in Putin’s master plan. Yes, most want a seat at the table. They aren’t revolutionaries. But if that seat is continually denied, or the pressure keeps increasing, as it undoubtedly will, more and more of them will radicalize, giving Putin the perpetual flow of “enemies of the state” he requires.

Putinist Simulacrum

A copy of a copy of a copy.

h/t Veronica Khokhlova

Medvedev Sacks Kudrin

Just like that Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is gone after a 24 hour imbroglio that put him tet-a-tet with outgoing President and soon to be Prime Minister Medvedev.  During a shocking announcement in Washington on Saturday, Kudrin responded to Putin’s return to the Presidency with “I do not see myself in a new government. The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have will not allow me to join this government.” That is the government soon to be headed by Medvedev. The differences between the two power players are well known, particularly around issues of budget austerity, which Kudrin is a staunch advocate of.

Nevertheless, Kudrin was expected to continue on as Finance Minister well on into 2012. Just two weeks ago said he was prepared to stay on. Apparently, Saturday’s big announcement  blindsided him.  Some are suggesting that Kudrin’s gunning for the Premiership himself, and being released as Finance Minister allows him to gun harder.

All that said, what is most surprising about all this is its publicity. Russian elite political tussles are rarely aired in open. I believe it is for this reason that Kudrin had to go. He basically violated Russian political ethics dating back at least a century.

Of which, he made three mistakes:

1) He undermined Medvedev’s authority precisely at a time when it is so shaky.
2) He broke “democratic centralism” by making public statements that diverged from agreed policy.
3) He made these statements outside of Russia, and worse, from the United States.

And this is why, Medvedev decided to undress Kudrin for all eyes to see. Medvedev’s comments weren’t for just for him. They were for everyone in the government.

Here’s a transcript of the undressing:

Dmitry Medvedev:

I want to say a few words about discipline in the Russian government. Everyone knows that we entered into an electoral campaign, that this is difficult test for the governmental system and for individual people. I believe that this affects the nerves. Apparently connected to this is a whole host of statements that have reverberated recently in our country from abroad, specifically from the United States. We generally have a entire class of citizens who make departing declarations from the other side of the ocean. There’s Alexei Kudrin, who is present here, announcing the happy news that he doesn’t plan to work in the new government and has serious differences with the active President, in particular over questions of expenditures, including military expenditures. In this context, I would like to note several things. First, there is no new government whatsoever, and no one has made any kind of invitations to anyone. But there is an old government which I formed as President and is accountable to me and will proceed within the framework of my constitutional authority. This government will carryout the course of the President and under all key decisions made under government’s leadership, including, of course, those under the Minister of Finance on issues of budgetary finance policy and generally to widest class of problems, including, of course, those having to do with expenditure on armaments.

I understand that Alexei Leonidovich has previously had the possibility to state his position and has accepted his decision on his political future. To the purpose of joining with the Right Forces, as they call it. But Alexei Leonidovich apparently refused this for some reason. Nevertheless, I would like to say that a statement like this, made in the US, appears to be offensive and cannot be excused. Second, no one can abrogate the discipline and subordination to the government. If, Alexei Leonidovich, you don’t agree with the President’s course, and the government is taking the President’s course, then you have only one option–submit your resignation. Therefore I turn directly to you here with such a suggestion–if you think that you have another viewpoint on the economic order of the day from the President, that is from me, you can write a corresponding letter of resignation. Naturally you can answer directly here and now. Would you write such a letter?

Alexei Kudrin:

Dmitry Antolevich, I have real disagreements with you, but I have to talk with the Prime Minister before I arrive at a decision to your suggestion.


You know that you can consult with anyone you want including the Prime Minister. But I am President at the moment and I make such decisions myself.


Now you have offered me to make the decision for me, I can decide for myself . . .


I repeat again — You need to make up your mind very quickly and give me an answer today.


Of course.


Or you proceed that a disagreement, as you call it, doesn’t exist and then it’s necessary for you to explain your comments. If these disagreements exist, about which you recently spoken about, I don’t see any other conclusion, although to me, of course, it would be unpleasant to do what I have said.

Lastly, I would like to say a few words about this context. If there is anyone who doubts the course of the President or the government, or if there is anyone who has their own plans, you have the right to give me your resignation. But if it must be done out in the open, I will need to put an end to any irresponsible chatter. I will accept all necessary decisions up until 7 May of next year. I hope everything is understood?

God Save Putin

Putin as Alexander III

God save the noble Tsar!
Long may he live, in pow’r,
In happiness,
In peace to reign!
Dread of his enemies,
Faith’s sure defender,
God save the Tsar!

–“God Save the Tsar,” Vasily Zhukovsky, 1833

A few weeks ago, The New Times ran a story contemplating whether Putin had plastic surgery. “What happened to Putin’s face?” “Why does he look like a Udmurt?” bloggers asked after a photo shoot at Nashi’s camp Seliger revealed a glistening, pulled back Putin. Was it Botox? Plastic surgery? Putin did have that black eye back in October 2010, after all. He attributed it to a judo injury, as a mensch like himself would. But perhaps sanding down those wrinkles was part of a more long term plan?

As of yesterday, it’s now clear that Putin will need that new face as he’s set to dominate Russia’s news broadcasts for at least the next six years. Putin’s coming back to the Russian presidency, in case you haven’t heard. At United Russia’s Party Congress, current President Dmitry Medvedev all but resigned from his post with “I think it’s right that the party congress support the candidacy of the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in the role of the country’s president.” As it stands now the tandem will switch seats with Medvedev as Prime Minister and Putin as President, again.

Six more years. Actually, more like twelve. The Russian Constitution forbids a President from serving more than two consecutive terms of six years (previously four, but that was changed in 2008, as many feared to extend Putin’s return to the throne.), so Putin could go at least another two. Putin, 58, will be 70 by the end of his additional twelve year reign. He will have directly ruled Russia for a total of twenty years. Twenty-four, if you count the four he (in)directly ran the place during the Medvedev interregnum.

Whether twenty or twenty-four, Putin’s rule will rival, but not exceed, that of many Russian leaders. Ivan Grozny ruled for 51 years; Peter the Great for 43; Elizabeth, 20; Catherine the Great, 34; Nicholas I, 29; Alexander II, 26; Nicholas II, 22; Stalin, 34; and Brezhnev 18. Historically, Putin’s 20 year run will not be out of the norm. The problem is that for a country that bills itself as a (sovereign) democracy and longs for appearing as a modern nation state of the 21st century, long reigns, let alone achieving them by cynically taking advantage of the Russian Constitution, looks bad. Really bad.

I was surprised that Putin is coming back. Sure, many had pointed out over the last six months or so that the alignment of the political stars suggested that Putin was going to make a big return. Others noted the Presidential switcheroo was on back in 2008 when Putin anointed the politically weak, and virtually obscure Medvedev.  But I thought that because Putin’s coming back would look so bad, not to the West (Russian domestic politics shouldn’t take it into consideration anyway) but because of what it says about the insecurity of the political elite and continued ossification of the Russian political system. Insecure because Putin’s return suggests that there is no one in the stable that could effectively confront the issues that plague Russia besides Putin. Only he gives the air of “stability” and whose “heavy hand” can save Russia from itself. It also proves that what I see as the contradiction of centralization in Russian politics. Basically, the centralization of power around one entity, Putin, with the belief that only he can effectively govern, weakens the pool of alternatives nodes of power necessary for the continuation of effective rule. But with those alternatives weak, Putin can only rely on himself thereby justifying nothing short of autocracy. By not allowing Medvedev a second term, not to mention the development of his power base, sets Russia up with a vacuum of leadership at best and possible gerontocratic stagnation at worst.

The threat of political ossification is clear. The threat to elite politics is real, but I think the backroom duels will continue after a period conservative euphoria. I agree with Comrade Rothrock that Putin’s return signals a defeat of the liberal party, but not the end of politics as such. The liberals might have learned that they need to unite and entrench themselves further. It certainly shows that experimenting with entities like Mikhail Prokhorov and Right Cause won’t do it. They need to burrow from the inside if they want to push their agenda. Another lesson is that Dmitry Medvedev is not their man, if he ever was to begin with. But playing interest group politics by lobbying the don has its limitations. The only way to real power and influence is to seek an ally willing to take down Putin.

But the rigidity of politics doesn’t just threaten the top. The threat is what it says to the public. Putin’s return removes the political charade that Russian politics can break out of its Byzantine forms, gradually whittle down the politics of personality and clans, and move toward more pluralistic practices. The decision for Putin’s return seems to have been totally Byzantine. This is at least how Medvedev himself explained it: “We already discussed this scenario back when we first formed a friendly alliance.” If this is true (a large part of me thinks it isn’t), then the last four years have been thoroughly delegitimized, let alone an utter cynical farce. The next six might also suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. As Aleksandr Minkin put it in Moskovskii komsomolets:

Tens (and possibly hundreds) of times you [Putin and Medvedev] were asked: “Who will be the next President?” You answered: “We will sit down and decide.” Here was a complete disregard to the opinion of the people, but, now it seems, this was also deceit. It seems that you decided a long time ago. Why such the cynical candidness?

You and Medvedev could have said something like: “We thought about what would be best for Russia all year long. We made a decision yesterday evening. . .”

It’s not important that people believed it. It’s important that decorum was kept. Why stand naked? No, with a smile which is customary that everyone excuse, Medvedev said that everything was decided and “deeply thought out” already in 2007, if not sooner. We don’t exactly know when “your friendly alliance was formed.”

All these years Medvedev said (it should be written “lied”) that the decision first and foremost was based on people’s opinion. But the decision was made beforehand. And the people were overlooked completely.

In fact, it seems that Medvedev and Putin were the only ones in on the joke. Medvedev’s team appears to have been in the dark. Even United Russia didn’t know who would be on their electoral lists before Medvedev’s announcement. United Russia, according to Stanislav Belkovskii, “has been proven once again not to be the ruling party, not a party at all, and not a political subject.” Moreover, Belkovskii continues, it has proved that “elections in the country have been practically eliminated” therefore no one needs to bother with them or even think about them. In regard to Russia’s long term process of political decentralization, well forget it. The process of “managed democratization” is now officially put on hold.

Sure, one will say: Putin is popular. The Russian people won’t mind. All the polls show that Putin is welcomed back to the Presidency. True, Putin is popular and there are very good reasons why. But this begs the perennial question about the Russian elites: If they are genuinely popular, then why do they have to scheme? Why do they delegitimize their power through subterfuge? What do they fear? The answer is that either they really aren’t that popular, or that even when secure they feel their grip on the country is tenuous.

The question that remains is which Putin will Russia get. As Putin, face pulled back, wrinkles a smooth veneer, thumbs through the annals of Russian history and contemplates the long reigns of his predecessors, what type of Tsar will he decide to become? Will it be the brutal modernizer Peter the Great always with club in hand? Will he be the enlightened despot a la Catherine? The politically arid Nicholas I? The modernizing police state of Alexander III? Or will he gaze deep into the portrait of Alexander II and unveil his grace through “liberal” reform.

We shall see.

But for now, God Save the Tsar!

The Putin-Medvedev Tandem in Diagrams has released “10 Simple Diagrams: The Results of the Putin-Medvedev Tandem.” The charts document 2000 to the present to show “the evolution of Putin-Medvedev’s Russia.” These diagrams are certainly worth considering when trying to understand Putin and Medvedev’s continued popularity:

Economic capacity of the Russian Federation

Percentage of poverty

Times the income of the richest 10 percent is greater than the poorest 10 percent

Per capita monthly income


Living space in square meters

Recorded cases of murder and attempted murder

The number of cases to the European Court for Human Rights

Percentage of people satisfied with life

The number of billionaires


The Hundred-Headed Monster

Slaying the Hundred-Headed Monster

In a Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), Aleksander Radishchev referred to Russia’s autocratic system as a “hundred-headed monster that gulps down the food prepared for the people’s gen­eral sustenance.” For most Russians, whether under Tsarism or the Soviets, the heads of that monster were decorated with the stony face of the bureaucrat, or chinovnik.  And be sure, a hundred heads is far too small of a number to capture the enormity of the Russian bureaucracy.

While Radishchev’s reference was to the ancient Greek monster of monsters, Typhon, the image is antiquated in capturing the present day Typhon inhabiting Russia.  Indeed, Russia’s Typhon still has one body, but the heads number well over a million. According to Rosstat, the number of bureaucrats in 2010 at the federal and municipal levels was 1,648,400, or an average of 25 bureaucrats per 1000 people.  In the belly of the beast, i.e. Moscow, there are over 78,000 alone, or 12 per 1000 people.

This wouldn’t be such a problem beyond the inevitable red tape if Russia’s chinovniki weren’t also known to be horribly corrupt. Here are some choice comments about Russians’ attitude toward chinovniki from interviews complied by Anne Hamiton for her article “Radishchev’s Hundred-Headed Monster Lives! The Role of the Bureaucrat Symbol in State-Society Relations in Russia“:

“[Bureaucrats] are people who start to gnaw at you for every little paper”; “they are also vulture-like, in the sense that they grab everything and pig out”; “Any leader is a hero in my eyes, but these [biurokrat, chinovnik, apparatchik] are reptiles, rats, nits—rotten”.

Even those who do their job are viewed as lacking any morality, and even a soul:

“You have good chinovniki, those who worked normally, fulfill their jobs, do everything quickly, but they are lacking soul, they are cold, chilly in general”; “I don’t know why [they treat people poorly]. Maybe they pay them poorly, most likely, it’s … immorality, lack of soul”

You get the point.

Granted, Russians’ poor regard for their civil service is entrenched in the culture. Just think of the enduring legacy of Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich. But this is not to say that Russian bureaucrats haven’t consistently provided kindling to keep such deleterious views burning bright. Two recent articles, one from and the other from Vedomosti, provide key reasons why.

The first article from Gazeta concerns Chief State Prosecutor Yuri Chaika’s annual report to President Medvedev.  There was little in Chaika’s report to celebrate, and if its results don’t end his career as Russia guardian of the law, I don’t know what will.  It certainly puts Medvedev’s campaign against corruption into perspective.  Medvedev can raise the penalty for corruption as high has he wants.  He can also point ad nauseum to the endemic problem of corruption.  And even if the “real” Medvedev stands up, be sure the political reality that is Russia will strap him right down.  After all, you can’t punish if the very organs of punishment are unwilling to. Here’s what Gazeta has to say to this effect in Chaika’s report:

There were 40,600 crimes “against the government, the interests of civil service, and the employees in local government offices.” That is 12.2% less than last year.  In the past year the Investigative Committee initiated 13,500 criminal cases involving corruption and refused to carry out investigations in 21,500 cases. But in the last year and the number of investigations on bribe taking shrunk by 2%, on abuse of official authority by almost 6%.  There was an insignificant growth in the number of investigations against commercial bribery.

In manufacturing, investigators had 18,000 criminal corruption cases, but  investigations were completed in less than half of them.  The courts tried 7,300 criminal cases, of which 2,400 were about giving bribes, 1,400 for taking bribes, and even 1,100 for fraud.  The courts tried 2,200 cases under other “corruption” statues.

And when it came to the people who were prosecuted, they tended to be rather small fries: “doctors, teachers, and low ranking police.”  “Cases involving sums more than a million rubles totaled around a hundred.”

So much for Medvedev’s campaign.  Even if he was serious, and I think he is as serious as he can be without undermining his support among the elite, the hundred-headed monster has more domes than a mere gnome can lop off.

Bribes do pay. Quite well.  And their costing the vast majority of Russia a whole lot of cash.  The costs, however, are not just from individuals paying bribes, but in the price of doing business.  These costs were the subject a recent article in Vedomosti on the impact of ineffective and corrupt bureaucrats on the cost of commercial property, goods and services.  Among many things, the business daily reported:

Poor institutions are responsible for 25-30% of the cost of residential and commercial property (in Moscow up to 60%), a 15% extra markup in retail goods, and 10% in telecommunications service.

Bribes to get the necessary permits for construction amount to 5-15% of the cost of the project, and 7-10% for hooking up utilities.  All of this at the end of the day gets passed on to the consumer.

Then there is this:

The cost for permits from various government levels can consist of 30 to 60% of the cost of construction of buildings depending on the region and difficulty of the project,” says Dimitry Potapenko. Permits can drag for years, like for example, it’s turned out for IKEA in Samara.  The Swedish retail store began its construction in 2006 and has yet to get the permission to open. In addition to the planned 4 billion ruble investment in the project, IKEA is forced to put in twice more.

Not the best way to court foreign investment.

With findings like these, each head of Radishchev’s monsters is living quite well on the food prepared by the Russian people.

Putin vs. Medvedev

The Russian Communist Party’s excellent spoof of the 2012 Russian Presidential Elections with English subtitles.

h/t Jim Meyer

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