A nervous Russian elite is waryas Putin transforms his political edifice


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, arrive for a meeting of senior military officials in Moscow last month. (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
March 8, 2013

President Vladimir Putin’s steady and seemingly solid political structure, under pressure from within and without, is undergoing a renovation that could remake the whole edifice, if it doesn’t crack open first. Few seem to understand how this will turn out, or what their places will be in it when it’s done.

Ever since street protests broke out in December 2011, rattling the ruling United Russia party just as Putin was preparing to retake the presidency, expectations have been widespread that the system here would have to change. Now it’s happening, most obviously with almost daily public exposures of corruption and chiseling schemes, which for years were ignored.

The highly publicized investigations may be mostly for show, but they have left the top rung of the political ladder nervously trying to discern the message and, analysts agree, figure out what the new rules are. Coupled with this is a sharp turn inward, away from the West, that promises to force some hard choices among an up-to-now comfortable cohort.

That suggests risks for Putin, as well — depending on how the people around him eventually make those choices.

Broadly speaking, the Kremlin appears to be dropping the most egregious offenders over the side, like so much excess ballast. An Olympic official whose construction company was over budget by 900 percent on the building of a ski jump — and way behind schedule — was exposed by Putin himself on national television. A member of the State Duma, Vladimir Pekhtin, was let go when he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for the undeclared Miami properties in his name.

Pekhtin, according to Dozhd TV, resigned his seat only after a meeting inside the Kremlin that lasted until 2 a.m. His departure — soon followed by those of three others, including a member of the upper house — appeared to send an especially strong signal: that the nationalist fervor Putin is stirring up comes with teeth, and it’s time for those who want to keep in his favor to remember the motherland, and bring that one foot that’s been out the door back inside.

With the most recent Levada Center poll showing 54 percent of the public disapproving of the government’s performance, Putin is demanding loyalty from those around him.

One way to ensure that loyalty is to cut off their access to financial security in the West, Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analysis department at the Center for Political Technologies here, wrote in an essay for the group’s Web site.

But that changes the deal that for a decade has guided the upper echelon, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a prominent political consultant who was ousted from the Kremlin nearly two years ago. Obeisance to Putin meant his loyalists could have their pickings.

In fact, he said, “our ruling class is loyal to the extent that it is stealing.”

There was protection for those who went along, but now that protection has been drawn back for some, and the rest, feeling the heat from above, don’t know where the red lines are anymore.

‘Terrible revelations’

In November, a criminal investigation that involved the defense minister — unpopular with the generals but a longtime close associate of Putin’s — suddenly burst into the open. Putin let the probe evolve — and the minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, lost his job — and then it bogged down. Serdyukov had powerful opponents inside the Kremlin among the “siloviki,” or those with a background in the security services. Putin may be keeping Serdyukov free from indictment, Pavlovsky said, so as to be sure that the siloviki don’t entirely surround him.

TIMELINE: Russia's president cracks down on dissent.

Serdyukov, implicated along with his mistress, has been called in for repeated questioning but dangles without charges. That doesn’t entirely reassure those at a similar level.

Naturally, the self-preservation instinct kicks in. “Every day,” Pavlovsky said of Putin, “he gets these terrible revelations. If he believed them all, he’d have to fire everyone or imprison them. They’re all accusing each other, not only of theft, but of espionage, of being American spies. He suspects them all, but he doesn’t understand the degree of rot.”

That sums up one of the main challenges facing Putin. His grip is not absolute. Factions within the Kremlin vie for supremacy, while Russia’s vast bureaucracy looks out, primarily, for itself. He has his own minefields to deal with.

Another unpopular former minister, Yelena Skrynnik, who was the agriculture chief until last year, has also been named in a corruption investigation. But in her case, too, prosecutors have been moving slowly, as if waiting for a signal from on high that hasn’t yet come, said Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

No backward glances

Yet while those graft cases remain open and unresolved, two members of a presidential human rights council, appointed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, have also come under official harassment, in once instance by police. Their apparent offense was to prepare a report last year, at Medvedev’s request, which found that no crimes had been committed in the notorious Yukos case. That was the 2003 crackdown that sent the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky to prison and that cemented Putin’s grip on power.

The message now, said Kirill Rogov, who studies politics at the Gaidar Institute, is that there will be no turning back, no reexamination, no question of Putin’s control stemming from the case that was crucial to the creation of his “vertical of power” political system.

Plenty of people who prospered under the previous setup won’t be eager to follow Putin into new territory, with its fundamentalism and xenophobia. Shevtsova, who has been sharply critical of Putin for years, said the country’s leading business tycoons will tire of his leadership and eventually find a way to replace him.

But Putin may be betting that he can benefit from stirring up a new contentiousness in Russian politics. (This is a widely held belief, most forcefully put forward in an essay by Alexander Rubtsov, head of the Center for the Philosophical Studies of Ideological Processes, under the Russian Academy of Sciences.)

The president is not afraid of “catastrophes,” Pavlovsky said. He believes he came to power because of the catastrophe of the Boris Yeltsin years. Some stormy drama, of his own devising, may be beckoning.

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