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22 September 2015

Dangerous endeavor

The damage to ‘Putin’s second consensus’

Vyacheslav Gaiser, the head of the Komi Republic, detained on September 19 in Moscow, has become the second regional head of the Russian Federation in a little over half a year, to have exited his high cabinet position to enter a prison cell. Moreover, for the first time, an official of such high ranking is accused of having led an organized criminal group (and not a successfully developing region, in line with popular belief). The charge sheets and the bodies of material evidence of unlawful enrichment are similar in both cases. And there is no doubt that collections of watches worth millions of dollars and suitcases stuffed with cash can still be found in the possession of many of those who occupy top positions in today’s Russia. Political and economic behaviors formed in the country, fully subdued to the will of the superiors do not encourage dedicated service for the good of society.

Russian experts and commentators immediately put forward plenty of theories formulated to explain the reasons behind such radical steps undertaken by law enforcement agencies, and which president Putin obviously must have been aware of. I am not prepared to speculate about these variants now and I believe it is more important to focus not on the causes, but on the possible effects of the offbeat demarche adopted by the Kremlin.

As all the public opinion polls have shown over recent years, Russian citizens perceive corruption as one of the greatest social evils. However, the authorities have never seriously tried to take advantage of this resource to increase their popularity – and there were plenty of reasons for that. In my opinion, the main reason was ‘Putin’s second consensus’: a deal between higher echelons of the elite and bureaucratic powers that the latter maintains ‘stability’ on the ground, desirable ‘election results’ and ‘safeguards the interests’ of federal monopolies in the regions while the former allows local officials to line their pockets unimpeded ‘within their areas of responsibility’ and traverse justice when it comes to affairs that concern them personally. There are numerous examples: starting with the formation of local business empires (such as the one of former Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev and his family) to the beatings of undesirable journalists (such as the scandal in which Pskov governor Andrey Turchak was allegedly involved).

This arrangement between the supreme authority and the rank and file bureaucracy has been, and is, one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the existing regime in Russia. In fact, it turned civil service at all tiers of its hierarchy into the most profitable (and in many ways the safest) business, the stakeholders of which are completely free from commercial exposure and – to a large extent – the risk of encountering law enforcement officers who are either subordinated to regional authorities or have close informal ties with them; the very fact that both of the arrested governors stored luxury watch collections, tens of millions rubles and compromising materials in their offices or official residences is testament to their utmost confidence in their personal impunity. And it was precisely this factor which served to promote a high level of political and personal loyalty which was present in Russia for years across the entire ladder of the ‘power vertical’.

Of course, glitches did occur: suffice it to recall the ‘case’ Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov, his lover, relatives and ministerial colleagues were mixed up in. However, the case, which at first seemed to mark the ‘onset’ of a powerful anti-corruption campaign, quickly fizzled out. In 2012, many political scientists were speaking seriously of the waging of a Kremlin war on corrupt officials to steal the march on opposition politicians and find a new social consolidation point. But, most likely, an attempt was considered too risky and, after the events in the Crimea, also pointless. Therefore, the most high-profile case in contemporary Russia was ‘soft-pedalled’, and figureheads in the case, even if they did end up in prison, regained their freedom after only a few days.

The situation is different now – and the problem, I dare say, is not about the systemic fight against corruption but in the growing dissatisfaction of the president with the way ministers and officials do their big and small business under the new conditions the country has found itself in. After the ‘Crimean campaign’, Vladimir Putin seems to have come to believe that the task of today’s elite is to fulfill a certain mission, significant in the country’s history and hence ‘there are things more important than the stock market’. However, almost none of state officials came to power with such a motivational blueprint: a couple of strong regional companies registered to relatives, a number of offshore businesses, a collection of cars and watches registered to relatives, real estate in Russia and abroad – that is why they sought powerful positions (even Vladimir Yakunin, undoubtedly motivated by the idea ‘of the greatness of the country’, refuses to declare his property, not to mention the assets of his relatives). Today, it is safe to assume that the Kremlin is gradually changing its priorities and ideas of what satraps are allowed to do and what they are not, but the officials themselves are not ready to ‘work under the new conditions’. This may also explain the resignation of the head of Russian Railways, used to the aid provided by the government to his company, as well as the harsh actions taken against regional bosses.

Whether it is a coincidence or not, oustings of governors due to ‘a loss of trust’ began (the case of Yury Luzhkov an exception) precisely after the decision on the Crimea was made (the only governor prosecuted earlier and currently serving his time in prison – Vyacheslav Dudka – was initially fired ‘without a fuss’ in summer 2011 from the post of head of the Tula oblast and put on trial only later). However, in March 2014, this harsh formula was applied to Vasily Yurchenko (Novosibirsk oblast) and to Nikolai Dyomin (Bryansk oblast) who were suspected of illicit enrichment. The cases of Alexander Khoroshavin, accused individually, and Vyacheslav Gaiser, suspected of creating an organized criminal group, appear to be follow ups on this trend. The Kremlin insistently reminds its appointees that the situation in the country has changed (if it were otherwise, the government would opt ‘not to wash its dirty linen in public’). However, in my opinion, this ‘new course’ is extremely dangerous to the current system in Russia.

Corruption, let me reiterate, is not a divergence from the norm developed in Russia in the 2000’s, but the norm itself. Abuse of power and the right to make formally lawful decisions whose beneficiaries are officials of a different rank – is the main motivation for those who opt for senior-level public posts. And although one can explain to a mass of people by means of a well-oiled propaganda machine that, under the new circumstances, they should forget about increased prosperity for a while and unite in their ‘fight’ against ‘fascist’ Ukraine and the ‘malicious’ West, it will be incommensurably more difficult to convey this message to officials.

In March 2014, Putin took a very risky decision in the sphere of foreign policy – but this decision was tactically gauged. The president knew that the EU and USA would take no military action and was convinced that economic sanctions would not suffice to force the Russian economy off the well-trodden path (which would be so, were it not for oil prices which constituted a spanner in the works). He realized that the people would express whole-hearted support for the annexation and, most importantly, that he could rely through thick and thin on those he himself selected and appointed to top leadership posts and who gathered in the St. George Hall of the Kremlin on March 18 to listen to his ‘Crimean speech’. However, recent developments give rise to fears that the president has come to believe in his omnipotence so much that he has decided to ‘go to war’ on the domestic front.

In my opinion, this initiative stands a good chance of destroying the unity of the elites rather quickly; the unity which is badly needed today for the functioning of the existing inefficient system of governance in Russia. The realization that the period during which senior officials have been entirely untouchable is coming to an end and may not so much inspire the opposition (which, on the one hand, is not very popular among the people and, on the other, does not have necessary tools to promote their initiatives) as it may provoke inner conflicts within the ruling class, creating conditions for the notorious ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’.

The weakness of the current Russian political system (unlike, for example, the one of the early 1990’s which prevailed through that stormy and uncertain decade) lies in the fact that all of its figureheads owe their statuses solely to Vladimir Putin. Today, there are no partially self-formed pressure groups (like the ones that existed in the days of Boris Yeltsin such as ‘the groups’ of Chernomyrdin, Luzhkov-Shaimiev or Chubais etc.) and all the existing ones are fighting for just one resource – the president’s attention. Such a system can be shattered by relatively minor inner destabilization. The trigger of which, let me reiterate, can turn out to be the impression growing among the elites that they have ceased to be untouchable.

The fight against corruption – a great tool for mobilizing the officialdom and rallying the masses in places where it has long been institutionalized and has become common practice (like, for example, in China). However, in a country where the political and social system is based on the selective application of norms and laws, its launch is fraught with an unacceptable level of excess pressure. Therefore, in my opinion, Vladimir Putin has become engaged in a dangerous game of late – and one cannot rule out the possibility that the very same courage and determination that he gets away with displaying in matters related to foreign policy could destroy him in his own country. Since it is the West which believes Russia is owned personally by its president whereas domestic bureaucrats have confidence that it is they who are Russia’s collective owners…

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