By mid-July, the political season in Russia should be over, but the intensity of expert commentary is so high now that one might think that parliamentary elections are just half a year away. In fact, they are not due until December 2007, which, by Russian standards, is far beyond the category of “foreseeable future.” The presidential administration keeps the show running, and the most visible figure in this extremely closed body has been its deputy head, Vladislav Surkov. For most of his career, he preferred to stay in the shadows, and this new public profile appears so out of character that some commentators are speculating about possible presidential ambitions (Gazeta.ru, July 13).
The latest sensation was the text of Surkov’s “secret” speech at the May 15 meeting of Business Russia published on Radio Liberty’s website (www.svoboda.org) and duly denounced as inaccurate by officials of this association of entrepreneurs (Lenta.ru, July 12). The main message of the address was a call to the business elite not to be “squeamish” and to join the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. The same appeal figured prominently in Surkov’s earlier presentations as well as in his boss Dmitry Medvedev’s interview with Ekspert (April 4).
Putin’s closest aides try to convince various audiences, including even rock musicians, to unite around the Kremlin, which is portrayed as the only guarantor of the country’s sovereignty and even survival (Ezhednevny zhurnal, July 15). The risks are not elaborated upon but the hints on chaos and dissolution are dark indeed and the fears come out quite clearly; Surkov’s phrase “We are just afraid” certainly rings true (Ekho Moskvy, July 14). The specter of “color revolutions” has not disappeared since the May massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, which Russia justifies as legitimate use of force against “terrorists.”
The main tone of this PR-campaign is, nevertheless, reassuringly positive with pronounced liberal-democratic overtones. What is particularly striking is that the same tone has dominated Putin’s recent public speeches, starting with his April address to parliament. Meeting with potential Western investors in St. Petersburg, or with journalists in Gleneagles, or paying a “surprise” visit to Komsomolskaya pravda (May 24) Russia’s president confirms his adherence to democratic values and market reforms. Even when gathering his “power ministers” in Dagestan, a republic torn by civil strife and terrorism, he refrained from any emotional rhetoric resembling his post-Beslan speech and merely criticized the heavy boots designed for new mountain brigades (Newsru.com, July 15).
This Western-liberal drift certainly goes against the preferences of the powerful interest group in Putin’s innermost circle known as siloviki and consisting mostly of former mid-rank KGB officers from St. Petersburg. They are believed to be behind the attack on and dismemberment of the oil giant Yukos, a poorly planned and clumsily executed “special operation” that has caused Putin plenty of embarrassment in the international arena. Now experts venture opinions, informed mostly by rumors but elaborated in full-blown analytical reports, that Medvedev and Surkov are gathering support from business elites in order to push siloviki into the back rows of Putin’s court and eventually expel them from the Kremlin (Vedomosti, June 24; Ekho Moskvy, July 14). These speculations might be entirely off target, but they are encouraged by the silence in that camp that is supposed to be led by Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov in the presidential administration and Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB.
Some commentators suggest that siloviki are just busy digesting the “juicy morsels” of Yukos and quarrelling between themselves about the non-merger of Gazprom and Rosneft (Gazeta.ru, July 15). It appears possible, nevertheless, that they are momentarily outplayed in the big political game, since Medvedev and Surkov are able to propose a solution for the “problem of 2008” — a codename for the transition of power at the end of Putin’s second presidential term. Their persistent appeal for unity in the political class could signify careful preparation for shifting the parliamentary elections to 2006, a preemptive strike that would catch the opposition unprepared and secure a stable environment for the choice of a “reasonable” successor (Gazeta.ru, July 14). Putin then would face the need to make the same choice that Yeltsin did in early 1996 when he fired his all-powerful personal bodyguard and drinking partner Alexander Korzhakov and embraced Anatoly Chubais and a team of skilled managers who secured his reelection.
The siloviki, however, might simply wait, knowing that Yeltsin was a natural leader with keen political instincts — but Putin is not. He is just a bureaucrat who by chance was propelled way above his level of incompetence and so cannot admit any mistake, blaming instead insidious “enemies” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, June 22). Until recently, it was Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was appointed the “main enemy” and punished accordingly; now this role is assigned to Leonid Nevzlin, who dared to speak against Putin before the U.S. Congress (Kommersant, July 15). Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who appeals to many in the political elite as a presidential candidate, is identified as another “enemy.” A very timely analysis by Alfa bank argues that possible business support for Kasyanov is a highly destabilizing factor, while the preferable option would be a continuation of Putin’s term beyond 2008 (Vedomosti, July 15). Siloviki do not argue with the enemies — an investigation has been launched against Kasyanov who allegedly “privatized” a comfortable dacha, an issue that is certain to touch a raw nerve with every urban dweller in Russia (Vremya novostei, July 12).
Surkov and Medvedev may pin their hopes on the assumption that Putin would not want to spoil his long-awaited chairmanship of the G-8, but Sechin and Ivanov are certain that when the going gets tough Putin would forget his superficial “liberalism” and fall back on his trusted comrades. And the only thing that is foreseeable about Russia’s future is that another crisis will strike and the Kremlin will be paralyzed again by the fear of responsibility for any decision.