Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The power struggle inside the Kremlin is gradually emerging into the open

"At the present time, the situation in Russia is characterized by some of the new features that distinguish it from the preceding period. One of them is the end of the "tandem era"

As I have already mentioned in a past article, there really is no "true" opposition in Russia.  Putin and Medvedev have very skillfully manipulated the various political forces to make sure that none of the parties represented in the Duma would ever actually have a chance to come to power.  They did that primarily by quietly promoting the emergence and continuous presence of political leaders whose positive image is dwarfed by their "negative image".  Take, for example, Zhirinovsky.  Yes, he usually gets something in the range of 10-15% of the people to vote for him.  But when asked "for which politicians would you never ever vote for, regardless of the circumstances?" roughly 70-75% Russian immediately reply "Zhirinovsky".  The fact is that the man is pretty much hated by all those who do not support him in the first place.

The figures for that old Communist dinosaur Ziuganov are only marginally better.  Again, the Kremlin, in this case both Medvedev and Putin, has very skillfully manipulated the system to make the "United Russia" the "only game in town", the rest is just a "democratic" fig-leaf aimed at giving the illusion of pluralism.

There are definite advantages to this setup.  For one thing, no US-paid for "color coded" revolution is likely to happen in such circumstances.  Second, everybody in Russia with money, power and ambition realizes that if you want to succeed you need to be with "United Russia" or risk facing the kind of problems which befell Khodorkovsky and his pro-Western allies.  Thirdly, this type of setup guarantees a certain degree of stability and continuity.  Simply put, if you do not have to worry about petty politics and elections, you can deal with the real business of running a country.  And yet, there are also very real risks in this kind of setup, in particular in the mid to long term.

First, a lot of people have already become disgusted with the inevitable arrogance of those who feel that their power in theirs forever and who can basically ignore the public opinion.  Second, by eliminating real diversity in the Duma this setup only pushes the discontent into the street, hardly a desirable outcome.

One clumsy and utterly hapless manifestation of this kind of "relocation" of the dissatisfied from the Duma into the street can be seen in the demonstrations which took place between the Parliamentary and Presidential elections last year.  Yes, the "white bands" (i.e. US-style "color coded") movement was a crazy mix of hardline leftists, hyper-conservatives, hyper-liberals, pro-US and rabidly nationalistic elements, but that is mainly true of the *political leaders and organizers* of these protests.  But this "tree" should not hide the "forest" of the many simply angry, frustrated and alienated Russians who took to the streets to express their deep dissatisfaction.  Yes, many more people were pro-Putin than anti-Putin, but that does not mean that there is not a large minority which is basically disgusted with the system in place.

Still, all these street demonstration never represented a real risk for the stability of Russia.  As I said, this was a chaotic, disorganized, largely discredited movement which had nothing to offer, and no chance to ever even get into the Kremlin.

There is a far more dangerous phenomenon taking place which could present a real danger not only for Putin's rule but even for the stability of Russia: dissenting movements *INSIDE* the Party in power.

As I have mentioned in the past, there are clear signs of real tensions between Putin and Medvedev.  One of the most knowledgeable Russian politicans, Evgenii Primakov, (ex- Russian Foreign Minister, ex- Prime Minister of Russia, ex- Speaker of the Soviet of the Union of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and ex- chief of intelligence service. Primakov is an academician and a member of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences) basically admitted to that in the quote at the top of this page.  The "tandem" is over, now Putin and Medvedev are in semi-opposition to each other.

Following the sacking of Serdiukov, it is now the turn of the the Minister of Education of Russia, Livanov, to be threatened with dismissal (for using crude language in front of a not-disconnected microphone).  An increasing number of commentators are now speculating that Putin might use this opportunity to sack the entire government, including Medvedev.

There has even been a far more ominous development recently.  A number of rather influential members of the "United Russia" (government) party have published a "Manifesto of Russian Political Liberalism" and, even more amazingly, they managed to publish it on the official website of the "United Russia" party! (original text here, Google translation here).

Now, of course, this is Russia, not Luxembourg, so the authors had to put a lot of disclaimers and caveats about what exactly they meant when they spoke of "liberalism", a concept which is now totally discredited in Russia.  Here is a typical Russian joke which illustrates the typical Russian view of liberals:
A new teacher comes into the class:
- My name is Abram Davidovich, I'm a liberal. And now all stand up and introduce yourself like I did ...
- My name is Masha I liberal ...
- My name is Petia, I'm a liberal ...
- My Little Johnny, I'm a Stalinist.
- Little Johnny, why are you a Stalinist? !
- My mom is a Stalinist, my dad is a Stalinist, my friends are Stalinists and I too am a Stalinist.
- Little Johnny, and if your mother was a whore, your father - a drug addict, your friends - homos, what would you be then in that case? !
- Then I would be a liberal.
Notice that the new teacher has a typically Jewish name, which illustrates the Russian belief that Jews are the prime proponents of the kind of "liberalism" folks like Berezovsky or Khodorkovsky incarnated in the 1990s.

Still, beyond the caveats and disclaimers, there is now a semi-official faction of the "United Russia" party which openly advocates some form of liberalism even though this is in direct contradiction with Putin's declared political objective stated in his article "Building justice: A social policy for Russia" which began with the words "Russia is a welfare/social state. We have a much higher level of social guarantees than other countries with similar productivity and per capita income levels". In Russia the concepts of "liberal" and "social" are mutually exclusive, yet high ranking members of the party "United Russia" are suddenly publishing an article in defense of liberalism.

The three authors, which include Valerii Fadeev, editor-in-chief of the magazine "Expert", have signed their names and added the title "coordinator of the liberal platform".

In other words, the party "United Russia" now has an official "liberal platform" coordinated by three party bigshots.  If that sounds like a direct challenge to Putin and his views it's because this is exactly what this is.

To be fair, in this new struggle, it was the Putin camp which fired the first shots.  First, the "All-Russia People's Front", created by Putin in 2011 as a "broad popular front of like-minded political forces" which would stand "above party lines" and it is now gradually turning into a "Putin Party", especially since Putin himself as to resign from the leadership of  "United Russia" when he was reelected as President.  Then Serdiukov was sacked.  At this point, it was clear that Putin was getting rid of his too pro-Western competitors and what is taking place now is a struggle inside "United Russia" to resist Putin's policies.

Interestingly, the party "United Russia" is nowhere nearly as popular as Putin himself and, and this is even more important, there are far more Russians with a negative view of the party "United Russia" then there are with a negative view of Putin.  All this only strengthens the fears of the Medvedev camp that Putin might turn the "All-Russia People's Front" into a new party literally overnight, and that this party would have far more popular support than "United Russia" and its current leader Medvedev.

Until very recently, all was officially rosy and peaceful in the "tandem", and the supposed love-fest between Putin and Medvedev was still supposed to be in full swing.  Today, however, yet another direct shot was taken by Putin at the Medvedev government.

In a carefully staged leak, Putin was recorded "off camera" scolding the government for its poor performance and openly threatening to dismiss it.  Here is the video (sorry, in Russian only) of that so-called leak:

This is a translation of the key words spoken by Putin:
- How do we work? Quality of our work - negligible. Everything is done superficially.  If this is how we work we will get friggin nothing done.  But if we work more aggressively and professionally, then we will get things done.  So let's raise the quality of our work.  Orders need to be executed, if they are not then either I am not working effectively or you are all not doing your jobs and you all need to leave!  I draw your attention to the fact that at this moment in time I am leaning towards the second option.  You need to understand that and not have any illusions.
Not much of a love-fest left here, don't you think?

The 'leaked' video (as if anything at all can be leaked from a Russian government meeting!) showed up on the website of the Russian tabloid "Life News" which triggered a tepid protest from Putin's press secretary who declared it unethical to air a recoding made after Putin expressly requested that the cameras be switched off.

Right.  As if anybody is dupe.

Bottom line: the fight between Putin's "Eurasian sovereignists" and Medvedev's  "Atlantic integrationists" is heating up and becoming semi-official.

My personal sense is that Putin will probably end up sacking the entire government - including Medvedev - and form a new one lead by a very different figure.  A likely first priority of this new government will reverse the pro-capitalist course of the previous governments (which even included calls for a 2nd wave of privatizations!) and will embark upon a much more social/socialist type of economic policies (including the nationalizations of even more large "strategic" companies).  Polls show that a large majority of the Russian people do want to see big changes in the social sphere, including an improvement of the living standards of the lower-middle class, a group which so far has been excluded from the benefits generated for the higher social classes by the rapid growth of the Russian economy.

Needless to say, should any of that happen that will trigger an even bigger wave of Putin-bashing by the Western political elites and their corporate media. 

Speaking of the West, the entire Russian press was incredulously commenting on the outright imbecile attitude of the Western press during Putin's recent trip to Germany and Holland.  At a time when the EU was in a deep, structural, crisis, when the war in Syria was showing not signs of ending, when issues such as immigration, terrorism or the planet's ecology should be at the forefront of the  discussions between world leaders, the Western press only had one single topic which seemed to interest them: homosexuals and their so-called "right" to marriage.  That, and the chicks from Femen who somehow managed to elude the otherwise all-seeing eye of the German security services and showed their breasts to Putin at the Hanover exhibition.  To say that the Russian press was unimpressed would be an understatement.  Frankly, most commentators are openly wondering whether the West has not gone completely crazy.

As for the very few pro-US politicians left in Russia, they are terribly embarrassed to be associated in any way with the USA or the EU and they are forced to retreat into arguments such as "yes, this is disgusting, but our country also has bad problems" which, I am sure you will agree, is not much of a platform to stand on.

The internal power struggle inside the Kremlin is clearly reaching a new, more overt, phase and it will have to come to some sort of resolution rather soon as the current situation is unsustainable, in particular at a moment in time when the situation in Syria is threatening to turn into yet another regional war.  One could also say that now is the perfect time to get rid of unimaginative, tepid or otherwise confused political figures like Medvedev and his allies and to make sure that the Russian state is run by one team united by a common vision.

Russia needs a government less preoccupied by pleasing the West and more concerned with the desires and needs of the Russian people.

The Saker