A major advantage of the scheme for consensual rotation between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev by the means of presidential elections was supposed to be a low intensity of infighting in the common court over which they jointly rule. It has not quite happened this way – not only because the courtiers are over-excited about the re-distribution of privileges, but also due to the debilitating decay in the ruling bureaucracy. The initial round of reshuffling went perfectly smoothly. Putin’s old favorite, Sergei Ivanov, was promoted to the head of the presidential administration, and the too-smart-by-half intriguer, Vladislav Surkov, was demoted to an insignificant position in the government. Further elevations and falls from grace, however, have become enmeshed in the hidden but acute rivalry between the two rulers, clashes of interests between clans and ambitious newcomers, as well as nasty corruption scandals. Moreover, the system has come under unexpected pressure from the emboldened and quickly regrouping opposition.
The task of moving the top-level sycophants around is complicated by the problem typical for extra-mature bureaucracies: each of them has acquired a vast clientele while there are few rich pastures available for retiring the ineffectual loyalists. Medvedev is keen to prove that he was not downgraded to just another “technical premier.” Therefore, he insists on staffing the government with new faces that will answer to him (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2). The test of his ability to form a manageable team has become very personal and focuses on Igor Sechin, Putin’s trusted lieutenant. Sechin is holding on to his chair of deputy prime minister in charge of the energy complex, which allows him to protect the interests of several privileged companies, first of all Rosneft (Gazeta.ru, April 4; Vedomosti, March 19). What makes his intransigence more credible is the high-resonance corruption scandal targeting first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, who could have been one of Medvedev’s allies (Moskovskie Novosti, Moscow Echo, March 30). Another difficult issue is the replacement of Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, who has clearly failed to implement meaningful police reform but remains a safe pair of hands for Putin (Expert, April 2). Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is hugely unpopular in the officer corps, but his replacement would have signified a big gain for ambitious deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin, who is quickly building a position of power for himself (RBC Daily, April 5).
The squabbles are no less intense at the regional level where governors ponder the consequences of the new law that will make them face elections (Kommersant, April 2). The Kremlin is in a hurry to replace the governors who have shown weakness in controlling the electoral process, like for instance in the Murmansk oblast (Gazeta.ru, April 4). Perhaps the most important appointment was that of Sergei Shoygu, the longest serving and the most popular Minister for Emergency Situations, who, as the newest governor of Moscow oblast, will now have to deal with the multiple and varied sources of discontent in the capital city (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 6). The newly-appointed Volgograd oblast governor Sergei Bozhenov, perhaps seeking to relieve some stress that built up over the reshuffling, took some 50 subordinates on a long week-end in Italy to celebrate his birthday. But that “relaxing retreat” did not escape the attention of angry bloggers (Moscow Echo, April 7).
This spendthrift behavior constitutes one episode in a series of spectacular revelations of corruption in the ruling bureaucracy that spills from the Russian blogosphere into Western media and impacts heavily on the escalating court intrigues. One of the recent scandals involves Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus Kirill, who is no less tempted by conspicuous consumption or prone to political power games than Putin himself (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Grani.ru, April 6). The official propaganda attempts to whitewash Shuvalov and to assert that Kirill is beyond suspicion, while the Foreign Ministry issues protestations against the 25-year sentence given by the New York court to the notorious arms trader Victor Bout, who has kept quiet so far about his patrons in the Russian establishment (Kommersant, April 7). These efforts at covering up the in-your-face corruption tend to backfire as journalists exploit political animosities to dig up incontrovertible evidence of dirty ties, for instance in the high-profile Magnitsky case (Novaya Gazeta, April 1).
Public outrage over corruption makes the most obvious unifying cause for the opposition, which discovered its power in the winter street protests and now tries to harness it by various organizational forms while preparing a massive protest rally on the eve of Putin’s inauguration in early May. The readiness to join forces across too many tactical disagreements was tested in Yaroslavl, where an independent candidate convincingly defeated the official nominee in the mayoral elections (Vedomosti, April 3). One of the most promising party-political projects was launched by Mikhail Prokhorov, who has gained a useful profile in the presidential elections (RBC Daily, April 4). Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin blazes a different trail by having set up the Civil Initiatives Committee, in which professional experts will develop alternatives to Putin’s state-centric course (Novaya Gazeta, April 15). Neither Prokhorov nor Kudrin could tap into the sources of discontent driven by glaring social injustice, but both are natural allies for potential defectors from the Kremlin cabal.
The question about when to jump the disorderly ship, which Putin pretends to steer as usual and Medvedev promises to take to the land of innovations, is looming larger every week for the weather-sensitive kleptocrats. The easiest way out is through evacuating their fortunes to safe havens in the West. Thus, capital flight is setting new records, registering $12.6 billion in March and $35 billion since the start of the year (Newsru.com, April 4). More risky is the decision to break out of the Kremlin walls, even if the defiance of former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov shows that Putin’s henchmen are not very good at following the money and prosecuting corruption. The “old guard” in the Kremlin is worried that Putin is going to discard them, and the “young wolves” feel that they have no future with him. The elections that were supposed to buy many years of time have in fact exhausted the supply of time left for the ancien regime.