This Week in Info War

Kremlin leadership politics: No longer ‘bulldogs fighting under a rug?’

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The 2017 edition of “Politburo 2.0” the biannual overview of power in the Kremlin published by Moscow’s Minchenko Consulting Group, came out 23 August at an especially timely moment. First, with presidential elections scheduled for March 2018 and Russia’s Vladimir Putin not yet having formally declared his intention to serve another term, members of the elite are uncertain about their political prospects, which largely depend on the status quo—although there is little reason to doubt Putin will not run. Second, in the face of Russia’s economic prospects, intraleadership competition over increasingly scarce resources is intensifying. 

These strains are evident in the high-profile corruption case against former Economy Minister Aleksey Ulyukaev, which has thrust into the open the simmering tensions between rival Kremlin clans—a public spectacle of elite infighting rarely seen so overtly in the 17 years since Putin became president. On 16 August, Ulyukayev stated at his trial that he had been framed by Igor Sechin, a close lieutenant of Putin and head of Rosneft—Russia’s biggest oil company—into accepting an illegal payment of $2 million. Most observers had expected Ulyukaev would go to jail quietly. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seems to be under attack again. In the cultural realm, noted stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov has been arrested for allegedly masterminding a fraudulent scheme involving Russian government subsidies he received for a film studio between 2011 and 2014.

The Minchenko report contains important findings about how Russia is ruled. Among them:  
  • The influence of the military, industrial and “power” “corporations” in the system has increased;
  • The formal government’s role has been limited—a “big government” headed by Putin actually takes on a lot of the cabinet’s functions;
  • A “rotation” and a “purge” of the elite has taken place. Putin has tried to level out the influence of longstanding elite clans and has brought in new people.
  • The elite has come to a fork in the developmental road about Russia’s future; one path leads toward militarization and mobilization, the other toward modernization.
  • The struggle over which path is appropriate for the country is one key driver of competition among the elite
More directly relevant to the current elite competition, the report also discusses the political prospects of key leaders. Most notably, it finds that the powerful Sechin appears to be at “the peak of his influence,” but predicts that his influence will decline after the 2018 elections. Politburo 2.0 notes that his “assertive management style” has generated countervailing elite coalitions. It argues that an anti-Sechin faction led by Rostek head Sergey Chemezov—along with Ulyukayev and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov—oppose his efforts to consolidate control over the energy sector, which harm the interests of firms such as Lukoil, Gazpromneft and Tatneft that Sechin does not control. Sechin’s opponents also object to Rosneft’s poor financial indicators, expensive international projects and a recent court decision favoring Rosneft against the company Sistema for an amount larger than its actual value. If Sechin is indeed behind Ulyukayev’s arrest, as his opponents believe, he violated the unspoken rules of elite relations. (The anti-Sechin campaign also has been carried on in the media. The independent television channel Dozhd claims to have found links between Rosneft and the Tambov organized crime group). The report apparently hit home. Mikhail Leontyev, Rosneft’s press secretary, speculated that Minchenko may have a “mental disorder.”

The Minchenko report suffers from the same shortcomings as many Kremlinological analyses, in that it lacks enough hard evidence and insufficiently appreciates Kremlin politics, where alliances are often opportunistic and situational rather than static. But as in the past, Politburo 2.0 reminds us that modern Russia is not a one-man show with Putin singing, dancing and acting at its center; nor is it his personal puppet theater, where the marionettes move only at his will. Instead, it comprises a chaotic mixture of clans and players pursuing often conflicting aims and aching to protect their power, status and property by correctly interpreting the signals from those higher up the ladder, even as they fear taking an inadvertent misstep.

Russia’s elites long had seemed to be cemented together by Putin’s authority, or the need to protect cash flows, or the need to circle the wagons against what they believe to be a hostile West. Now the “cement” seems to be weakened. The number of elite conflicts seen in public in recent months suggest that many more may be “under the carpet,” as Churchill once famously said. It is unlikely—at least so far—that these differences will crack open the elite and perhaps lead to a political crisis, but they bear watching closely.