Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 8

By Aleksandr Tsipko

The summer began in Russia with attempts by the siloviki to expand their “lebensraum.” I refer not only to their determination to exact revenge for their previous defeats at the hands of the liberals, but also to their attempts to influence the shape of what is known as “Putin’s course.” When people ask “Who exactly is Mr. Putin?,” they are usually referring to his choice between the so-called “statist” and “liberal” projects for the future development of Russia. The thing is that the siloviki–from the KGB and the Ministry of Defense–have recently been gaining the impression that, under pressure from his “friends,” Putin has been pandering to the liberals, particularly those linked to the old guard at the Kremlin–politicians recruited under Yeltsin.

It may be said that the siloviki’s first priority is to secure the dismissal of Kasyanov’s “old guard” government and to refashion the currently omnipotent presidential administration into a purely technical body concerned with administrative affairs. It is striking that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov blatantly resorted to blackmail of the cabinet recently. Addressing officers during his visit to the Far Eastern and Siberian military districts he promised to double officers’ pay in the near future, even though according to the government-approved plan, army salaries are only due to rise in the latter half of 2002, and even then only if circumstances allow. The minister is clearly putting pressure on the cabinet, possibly with a view to engineering his own resignation.

In a surprise development, the media uncovered a memo from emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu on the problems of preparing for the winter. Several commentators have described this document, which contrasts sharply with the government’s official position that the fuel situation in the regions is “somewhat better” than last year, as an indictment of the government for failing to cope with this task which is so crucial to the president’s plans. Shoigu thinks that if the preparations for winter fail, then situations similar to that in Primorye last year (where, incidentally, the first symptoms of another energy crisis were felt last week) will strike twelve Russian regions, dealing a severe blow to the president’s reputation. At the same time, alarmist information was being disseminated about how sociological research institutes had supposedly admitted that previously published figures relating to Putin’s popularity were clearly inflated, and that in July the president’s rating had supposedly reached a critical juncture. Putin’s core electorate was allegedly beginning to erode, and the number of so-called “solid Putinists” who were prepared to vote for him under any circumstances fell by as much as 5 percent in July. Commentators known to be sympathetic to the siloviki offered the theory that Kasyanov’s “unpopular” government should quickly be replaced with one that was capable of distancing itself from the liberal reforms and reverting to a course focusing on an active social policy. Taking these feelings into consideration, there is reason to suppose that Putin has indeed begun to shift towards the siloviki in his team.

In this respect, a meeting between the president, leading intelligence services operatives and government and administration leaders on July 23 acquires significance. Interestingly, Putin spoke in positive terms about the control mechanism which the FSB is setting up in the economy. Analysts believe that Putin attended this meeting in order to alleviate the siloviki’s displeasure at his meeting with Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a Chechen deputy, at which plans were supposedly discussed to initiate peace talks with Aslan Maskhadov. The Russian military are known to be categorically opposed to plans for a political solution to the conflict with the self-styled Chechen Republic.

For understandable reasons the siloviki may also have been less than pleased with Putin’s agreement, announced at the Genoa summit with George Bush, to initiate proceedings, under certain conditions, to review the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and, correspondingly, his consent to the creation of a national missile defense system by the Americans. The Russian military thinks that Putin agreed to this almost for free, because before the meeting Bush was forced to announce America’s intention to unilaterally reduce its offensive nuclear arsenal. Russia’s siloviki were also concerned at the tabling of bills in the US Congress to allocate funds to write off Russia’s debt in exchange for a reduction in Russia’s offensive nuclear potential. And it was not only the siloviki who were alarmed at the propensity for “Gorbachev-style” improvisation and surprise decisions that Putin demonstrated in Genoa.

Under these circumstances, Putin, acknowledging the mood of the siloviki, started concentrating on themes close to their heart, themes which had been overshadowed in the president’s speeches prior to the Genoa summit. Putin has once again begun to focus on the question of strengthening the military industrial complex and the authority of the armed forces. The issue of Russia’s national security has once again come to the fore. The government’s program to reform the defense industry was adopted on Putin’s initiative, with the emphasis on “implementing it as quickly as possible.” By supporting this program, Kasyanov has deflected accusations that the government is essentially undermining the defense capabilities of the country with its harsh economies and the niggardly funds allocated to the army.

Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry carried out an inspection of Moscow’s bomb shelters and drew up a plan to modernize them, and Putin convened a meeting of the Kaliningrad Oblast Security Council at which it was decided to introduce special measures there limiting the powers of the local leadership.

Putin’s recent hawking of integrationist themes may be seen as a concession to the statist orientation of the siloviki. Putin visited the “Slavonic Bazaar” festival in Vitebsk (Belarus), where he held consultations with the presidents of the “fraternal republics” of Belarus and Ukraine. This meeting on Belarusan territory was interpreted as indirect support for President Lukashenko, who is worshipped by the Russian military, on the eve of elections in the republic–although at a “shirtsleeve” summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi Putin made the standard statement that the elections were an internal Belarusan affair.

On this same integrationist wave, Putin has met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma a number of times in recent weeks. They visited Sevastopol together on the navy’s traditional holiday, and during the Sochi summit Putin and Kuchma discussed issues of economic and military cooperation. Notably, Putin unexpectedly promised Kuchma that he would personally attend the celebrations for the tenth anniversary of Ukrainian independence. This is an ambiguous gesture in itself.

Putin’s decision to put into practice the idea of creating a single tariff body (Russian abbreviation ETO) to coordinate rent collection from the natural monopolies may also be seen as a concession to the centralizing mood in the military. Undoubtedly, with the help of the ETO, which will effectively become a second government, Putin will secure control of the main financial flows in the country. The important thing here is that the ETO will shift tariff control away from the government, which the siloviki do not trust, towards the president.

Nevertheless, Putin’s concessions to the military should not be seen as a change of course or a change of attitude to Russia’s future. It is highly probable that Putin has rejected for good his original plans to construct a powerful power vertical based on the siloviki, subordinating all the country’s financial resources to them. No one knows why (there are various rumors doing the rounds), but Putin has opted for the zero option–legalizing once and for all the results of the privatization of Russia’s natural resources–rather than renationalizing the fuel and energy complex. It is worth remembering that as a rule the siloviki are staunch opponents of the privatization of the fuel and energy sector that took place in Russia. But here Putin is not making any concessions. Moreover, he supported the government’s proposal to table a bill in the Duma to privatize over 300 enterprises, particularly in the energy sector. Essentially, the plan is to grant Mikhail Gurtseriev private ownership of the Russian-Belarusan oil company Slavneft, which he already runs. Even the liberal newspaper Kommersant cannot understand why Putin wants to privatize a state oil company which is functioning perfectly efficiently.

It may therefore be said that today, at least, Putin sees taking Gaidar’s reforming plans to their logical conclusion to be the way forward for Russia. Essentially, all the economic laws passed by the Duma under pressure from Putin are designed to facilitate the opening up of the Russian economy. The most illustrative laws in this respect are those which envisage liberalization of currency control, despite the obvious negative consequences of such a step for the country’s finances. Again, it is difficult to say what is motivating Putin here: A genuine belief in the power of liberal methods to revive the economy, a desire to get into the good books of his G-7 colleagues as quickly as possible, or some special debts he owes to big business.

It is possible that Putin is being guided by more mundane considerations in favoring the interests of the liberals in their battle with the siloviki over the Russian birthright. The most likely explanation is that the siloviki are inferior to the liberals intellectually. They do not have a coherent plan of action or any leaders. The approaching parliamentary and presidential elections also have an influence. Putin understands full well that the liberals and big business have at their disposal far more intellectual, informational and financial resources for achieving his main aim than do the siloviki. It may be surmised that Putin is simply scared of giving the siloviki too much power.

Thus there is no reason to expect the generals to come to power in Russia in the near future. For the time being, at least, Putin is in fact continuing the Yeltsin tradition of backing the liberal minority.

Aleksandr Tsipko is a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.