Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 12

By Elena Chinyaeva

As President Vladimir Putin has been making one successful international appearance after another–clear, pro-Western and predictable–Russian internal politics has been developing its own way–murky, Byzantine and incomprehensible to the outsiders.

Out of this political debris new informal centers of power emerge. Whether they will act in the framework of the constitution or will strive to substitute it will depend on the president’ position. No one seems to disagree with that, which is a sign not only that the democratic machinery in Russia needs tuning, but that the people themselves are not quite ready to operate it.


Autumn is traditionally Russia’s busiest political season, and this one has been busy for all branches of power. The State Duma has been battling with the 2002 budget, trying to save its socially oriented character in the face of cuts required because of the fall in world oil prices. The Federation Council has seen the departure of its long-time head, Yegor Stroev: Despite his expectations, Stroev was unable to retain his position after he was re-elected governor of Oryel Oblast. Russia’s courts are bracing themselves for a reform already approved by the parliament that will significantly change the status of judges.

Most serious of all, the government has been shaken by investigations launched by the highly active Prosecutor General’s Office into the activities of various ministers. Investigators have been working in the Railways Ministry, whose head, Nikolai Aksenenko, was long seen as one of the untouchables, the State Customs Committee, the State Fisheries Committee and even the Emergency Situations Ministry, whose head Sergei Shoigu, also leads Unity, the main pro-presidential party in the Duma. Meanwhile, Sergei Stepashin, the former prime minister who currently heads the Audit Chamber, has been reporting to the president about still new cases of abuse of power by state officials.

Observers tend to believe that these probes are being carried out not simply because the principle of equal responsibility before the law is being put into practice. They are perceived as a consequence of a “command given from above” and a sign that political infighting in the highest corridors of power is intensifying. And in accordance with the logic of Byzantine politics, onlookers wait not so much for the outcome of the legal procedures as to what that is the president will say and with whom he will side. The perception is that the president’s world will determine whether the crimes will be fully prosecuted and the perpetrators punished.


Unconstitutional centers of power have been a political phenomenon from time immemorial. Even in formal democracies there is a place for one or two “grey cardinals,” though the degree to which they command influence differs significantly. On one hand there was Peru under President Alberto Fujimori, whose security adviser Vladimiro Montesinos made everybody play his game; on the other, there is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been accused of having a presidential style of governing, relying on an inner circle of his closest supporters. Underdeveloped democracies, such as Russia, lie somewhere in between.

One typical example of this is the political system of inter-war Czechoslovakia, which was considered the most democratic in Central Europe. Though a parliamentary democracy, it was shaped to assure the prevailing influence of the republic’s first president, Tomas G. Masaryk. This resulted, among other things, in the emergence of two unconstitutional centers of power–the Five, a group of leaders of the main parliamentary factions, which was supposed to arrange a consensus between the legislature and the executive on the most essential legislation; and the so called Castle group, a close circle of politicians, business figures and intellectuals, the writer Karel Capek among them, who acquired significant influence on the affairs of state.

Today’s Russia has its own “Castle group,” known as the “Family.” One of three factions said to exist within Russia’s governing elite, the Family is the Muscovite old guard that Putin inherited from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Aleksandr Voloshin, the chief of the presidential administration, is named as the Family’s main figure. The other two groups or factions came to Moscow from St. Petersburg when Putin, who once served as deputy mayor of Russia’s northern capital, became president. One of the groups consists of economists with liberal allegiances, of whom Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin is the highest-ranking. The other is a group of officials representing so-called “power ministers,” of whom Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov are the most notable. There are also less notable, though hardly less influential figures–Igor Sechin, the head of the presidential chancellery; Viktor Ivanov, the deputy head of the presidential administration; Yury Zaostrovtsev, the deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB); Viktor Zolotov, the head of the Presidential Security Service.


Each of these groups relies on the president for support. Observers follow the intrigue with apprehension, trying to make out what Vladimir Putin really is: Is he a Yeltsin-type autocrat, a liberal or a security services man? While the West seems to have decided to embrace him as a liberal, his countrymen appear to be prepared to accept him as whatever he turns out to be. Interestingly enough, nobody has yet posed the question of whether Russia’s political system is effective enough to withstand the pressure of nonconstitutional politics. The president, after all, is part of the system, not above it.

So far, at least, the president has remained above the political infighting. This perhaps should be the most important indication to those awaiting his magic word that the president is not taking on the role of ultimate arbiter given that there is a system of procedures that can be appealed to for guidance.

A similar situation developed in 1996 when, on the eve of the presidential elections, a group of powerful grey cardinals–Oleg Soskovets, who was then First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Korzhakov, then head of the Presidential Security Service, and Mikhail Barsukov, who then headed the FSB–clashed head-on with a group of liberal-minded politicians led by Anatoly Chubais, who was then heading Yeltsin’s election campaign. The grey cardinals tried to persuade Yeltsin to cancel the elections, citing his extremely low approval rating. However the Chubais group won the president over and Yeltsin got his second term through democratic elections.

Some people in Russia believe a similar situation now exists–especially those especially those who were on the winning side active players in 1996 and subsequently acquired enormous influence in Yeltsin’s inner circle. Among them is Valentin Yumashev, who once headed the presidential administration–and was always one of Yeltsin’s closest advisers, officially or otherwise–recently married Yeltsin’s daughter, Tat’yana Dyachenko, who was politically active during her father’s second term. Yumashev even met with journalists recently to warn them about the danger of the security services getting the upper hand in the state.

Indeed, the work of law enforcement agencies is becoming a notable part of Russia’s everyday life. It is also increasingly a source of scandal as investigations are launched against well-known politicians and officials. At the same time, the scandals have such a big resonance precisely because many individuals who were under suspicion for questionable activities moved upward under Yeltsin and have long been essentially above the law, protected by their proteges from the first president’s inner circle. Only the lazy did not talk about the extreme corruption among the Russian elites, and yet any investigation into their economic activities has always been denounced as being “politically motivated.” Since few of these cases have ever made it to court, it is still hard to say whether the people suspected were innocent or the investigators simply unable to get them for, once again, political reasons.

The current situation is similar to that of 1996 in one respect: The political infighting is indeed stronger than at any time since Vladimir Putin became head of state. At the same time, the warring factions, in striving to win public opinion and the president to their side, may simply be presenting threats to their own positions as threats to the society as a whole. It is difficult to expect that all the people strolling down the Russian corridors of power would be marching in the same direction to the same orders. Obviously, they would form various groups, not necessarily strictly constructed, with intermingled and often conflicting interests. And there is no doubt that the main contention between them now is about the control over resources, material and administrative. Those who came later are trying to push the old guard aside. Who wouldn’t?

While intrigues of this kind are permanent, it is important that their consequences do not affect society’s main interests. Unfortunately, some demarches do just that. For example, the first thing Sergei Mironov said this month after being elected the new head of the Federation Council was that the presidential term should be extended. He was immediately supported by the Duma’s speaker, Gennady Seleznev, who said on the eve of the December 12 Constitution Day holiday that it was time to make amendments to the country’s main law. Putin, however, sharply rejected this idea, stating during the official Constitution Day reception that the Constitution will not be changed, especially not for the needs of the current president.

On the whole, Putin seems so far to have stuck to a strategy of not intervening in the battles between his officials. In that he is said to represent the special style of imperial St. Petersburg–cold, clearly pro-Western, liberal-minded in economics but stately, firmly guarding Russian national interests. As the political scandals unfolded, he even participated in the Civic Forum held in Moscow, as if to stress that he is part of civil society, the leader of the country, not its sole governor.

Good for Russia, if this is so. With such a president Russia could finally concentrate on making its democracy more effective and therefore the only instrument to identify and neutralize potentially destabilizing political developments. Good for Russia, if the president’s silence would not in itself be taken as an instrument–for instance, in a new round of scandal in the Russian mass media. The imminent closure of the TV-6 television channel, which is run by former NTV television journalists, is typical of more and more criminal cases nowadays–which, while fought on the economic grounds, have a distinctly political tune. And, as in all the other cases, the participants look to the president, expecting him to decide their fate. And that is perhaps exactly the case when such interference would be welcome. Whether it takes place or not, it illustrates the state of democratic development in Russia of today: The democratic machinery needs a lot of tuning, while people still have to change their way of thinking in order to operate it.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.