In political systems that block change through elections, the main guarantee of a regime’s stability is its capacity to absorb a potential counter-elite. At the moment, the regime is preventing any such renewal from occurring. Yet a counter-elite is in the process of formation nonetheless—one that can eventually take Russia in a new direction.
Instead of consolidating in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, Russian elites have started making the structures they manage more autonomous. Uncertain about the future of the system, governors, directors of state-run enterprises, and heads of state bodies are carving out their own personal empires. Once centripetal, the Russian political system is now governed by centrifugal forces.
There are multiple indications that public support for the ruling regime in Russia is provisional and the country is entering a period of post-Putin transition. Neither the authorities nor the opposition is prepared for it.
Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federation Council typically lets him map out the country’s foreign and domestic policy course for the coming year. Yet Putin’s speech this time—one of his longest and strangest ever—was essentially an admission that he has little sense of what the events of the coming months will bring or how he plans to deal with them.
The political system Volodin leaves behind—that is, a system without any real politics—allows the regime the illusion of control. But the system’s domain has been all but reduced to the tiny world of politicians who agree to the Kremlin’s rules. Activists, ambitious players, and most importantly Russian citizens find themselves outside the bounds of politics.
What will the two recently appointed behind-the-scenes technocrats, Sergei Kiriyenko and Anton Vaino, do in the Kremlin? They will have no say in foreign policy, and even in domestic politics they cannot change course unless the president desires it. It seems that both are awaiting orders. They must have a mission of some sort, a specific project to carry out. But what is it?
Many say Sergei Kiriyenko, the new deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, is a technocrat who was brought in to manage a well-established political system. But there’s more to Kiriyenko: like other disciples of the philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky, Kiriyenko believes that reality can be altered and society programmed.
The nominal architects of the internal political machine must be replaced with operators: people who will manage the status quo without changing its fundamental principles. This is the role that Sergei Kiriyenko is going to play. It’s a case of the trends dictating the logic of the management, rather than the manager setting the trends.
The Russian authorities delivered a resounding victory for the ruling party in the 2016 parliamentary election after reaching the conclusion that they showed weakness in 2011 and the Russian opposition exploited that. This will shape their strategy for the next presidential election in 2018.
The detailed results of the forthcoming elections to Russia’s lower house of parliament are less important than the conclusions the Kremlin draws from them. Vladimir Putin’s system is less and less interested in old-style political competition. The new Duma can become a launching pad for those who want to make their careers in the new Putin elite that forms after the 2018 presidential election.