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Sergei Chemezov has just about all the hallmarks of someone who embodies Russian state capitalism: the transformation of Russia as a country into Russia, Inc.
Googling his name brings up a complete checklist of attributes of a state capitalist oligarch in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, from the state technology corporation Rostec that Chemezov heads, to scandals over real estate held in his wife’s name. So when a person of such standing—and with such impeccable KGB credentials, having served with Putin back in East Germany—suddenly starts holding forth on the public mood in Russia amid a wave of protests in Moscow over opposition candidates being blocked from running for city parliament elections, it naturally prompts a furor.
Ultimately, however, it’s just a storm in a teacup. What Chemezov, the head of an enormous industrial empire, a member of the boards of directors of a multitude of other companies, and the subject of investigations into startling models of property ownership, actually said was something that Putin himself has reiterated time and time again, in various situations.
“Overall, my civic position is as follows: the presence of a moderate opposition benefits any authority, representative assembly, and ultimately the state,” Chemezov was cited by the RBC news agency as saying in an interview that hasn’t even yet been published in full.
“There should be some kind of alternative force that makes suggestions and signals toward one way or another … If everything is always good, then we may enter a period of stagnation, and we’ve already lived through that [under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev].”
Chemezov said nothing remotely special, if we disregard the fact that the country has in fact already entered a period of stagnation, to which the dynamics of official statistics testify, along with some nuances of economic policy, not to mention domestic and foreign policy. There would have been nothing unusual if it hadn’t been for one phrase that clearly ran counter to Putin’s own interpretation of the situation: “It’s obvious that people are really disgruntled, and that’s not good for anybody.”
Judging by what the Russian president said during his meeting with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, last week, Putin in no way considers people to be “disgruntled.” Firstly, Putin’s logic is that these allegedly disgruntled people are disturbing public order and are “making the situation absurd.” Secondly, the Kremlin puppet masters have made it abundantly clear that the people involved in the protests represent excess, and on a purely regional scale. Furthermore, they are financed from abroad, and have no real significance. As for the economy, well, soon the government’s recent VAT hike will bear fruit, and the much-vaunted national projects—a road map for Russia’s strategic development—will kick-start the stalled engine of GDP growth. Everything is going to plan.
But that’s just Putin’s vision. Some decisionmakers close to him—and they are by no means from the ranks of the in-system liberals, or the technocrats who operate outside the system, but from serious, security service circles—believe otherwise. It seems they are beginning to fear the consequences of waking up civil society, which, despite being shoved face down onto the asphalt, keeps on crawling through the gaps between the weeds and brambles.
This section of Putin’s inner circle doesn’t have a regular spokesperson, and, in any case, those in it don’t think in exactly the same way. Yet like the Soviet-era politburo, they do all share an ideological platform, only instead of Marxism-Leninism, it’s state capitalism-nationalism-militarism. (I’m convinced that these people have a genuine ideology, otherwise they would behave far more rationally, both in terms of politics and the economy.) And if Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was forced to take on the role of spokesman as far as the protests sweeping the Russian capital are concerned, putting his faith in the police, then Chemezov has been cast in the role of an alarm clock, or warning button.
In other words, the interview in which Chemezov made his comments was, in its own strange fashion, Chemezov’s way of sending a message to his boss: a variation on the pneumatic tube system. Probably there is no way of transmitting concern to the commander-in-chief that is guaranteed to be successful.
It could also be seen as a way of taking out an insurance policy or safe-conduct letter, in case a counter-elite comes to power: that his understanding of the hopes and needs of the “disgruntled” section of the population should be taken into account in any future judgment of the particularities of recent history.
The incident can also be interpreted in another way: as a demonstration to the city and world of democracy and pluralism of opinions right at the very top. After all, Sergei Mitrokhin from the opposition Yabloko party was eventually allowed to register his candidacy for the Moscow city parliament elections for no other reason than to give Putin a predictable argument to bring up in his meeting with Macron, while discrediting the country’s oldest democratic party in the eyes of more radically minded opposition activists, who have not been able to register their chosen candidates.
The main thing is that the words of one person, even a member of Putin’s inner circle, make no difference. A collective leadership already exists in Russia, comprised of a multitude of small and medium-sized Putins. They like to imagine how the president would behave in situations they find themselves in, and then add a few more truncheons and paddy wagons. No man is an island, Chemezov included, and his strange political “coming out” only testifies to the variety of formats for communicating opinions and news to the president. Putin can’t only look at everything in terms of reports in files brought to him by generals of various security services. After all, Chemezov is also a general, and is entitled to share his own point of view with the president.
It’s already entirely obvious that the regime has embarked on the path of more frequent and refined use of repression, and that the protests have been presented (and will continue to be so) by the Kremlin to the silent majority as the machinations of foreign powers. Chemezov’s comments testify not to the specter of a thaw, but, on the contrary, to the fact that the clampdown is in full swing, and only individual members of the inner circle are apprehensive of the radicalization of the authorities’ strategy, which will provoke a new spiral in the war that is already de facto raging between the state and civil society.
Ultimately, Chemezov’s musings either mean nothing at all, or are a bad sign. What we are definitely not seeing is a former KGB officer going over to the side of the people. In reality, it is an attempt to force those who were present when the decision was being made to radicalize the policy of repression to stop for a moment and think about the potential negative consequences of the path they have chosen.
A version of this article was originally published in Russian in Forbes.
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