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Vladimir Putin’s January 15 announcement of constitutional changes and a government reshuffle launched the long-awaited period of Russia’s political transition. It is almost certain that Putin will not run for the presidency in 2024, when his current term ends. Not only will he back a chosen successor to be president, but he will reapportion the powers of the presidency and parliament while also carving out a new role for himself.
Despite an abiding predisposition to conservatism, the Russian regime has begun to modify itself, both institutionally and politically. The changes raise the significance of the balance among different factions of the Russian elite. Indeed, this balance will in the long run determine not only the fate of numerous leading personalities, but also the sources from which future leadership will be drawn, and ultimately the country’s vector of development.
The way Russia is governed is often misunderstood. One misconception is that Putin deals with everything himself and that nothing gets decided without him. Another is that Putin’s supposedly omnipotent friends simply run the show in his name. A third line of conventional wisdom maintains that the chieftains of the security services, the so-called siloviki, are in total control of things. None of these explanations is close to reality. There are ample reasons for outsiders to get confused. Part of the problem is the wide discrepancy between the official administrative structure and informal political connections. For example, the head of a major Russian state corporation can be more influential than a cabinet minister.
This paper is intended to explain the dynamics of the ongoing transition and provide a way of understanding how it will reshape the Russian establishment and the impact on Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies. It offers a new system of classifying the Russian elite into five tiers, each with its own role in forming official policy. The five elite groups considered here are:
Each of these groups has a specific set of roles and functions in the present political regime. During the transition to and beyond 2024, some of these roles may change or evolve, but their overall place in the order of things is likely to be enduring.
Putin’s Retinue. Putin’s closest inner circle is an intriguing group. This is the “cadre reserve” to which Putin will turn to preserve his own influence after he hands off the presidency. It is comprised of Putin’s personal secretariat and the senior officers of the Federal Protective Service (FSO), who serve as the Kremlin’s bodyguards. These people work closely with the president on a daily basis. Several representatives of the group have risen high. A few FSO officers have been appointed to serve as regional governors. Recently, the FSO has experienced a form of generational rotation. Looking ahead, this group is likely to serve as Putin’s personal security corps after he ceases to be president. After that, they will follow him to his new post, which, in light of recent developments, might be as head of the revamped State Council.
Putin’s Friends and Associates. Putin’s friends, proxies, longtime associates from earlier phases of his career, and former KGB colleagues have always been a major resource base of the regime. They also form Putin’s personal support network. These people stood by the president’s side when he first came to power in 2000 and needed to sideline the Yeltsin-era elite. In the twenty years that have elapsed since then, however, their position has changed radically. As Putin constructed the “power vertical” that imposed more rigid authority from above, the majority of these associates received large state assets to manage, essentially transforming them into state oligarchs. However, by having become rich and important in their own right, this group has also become more distant from the government. Contrary to the widespread belief that this group dominates the decisionmaking process, they are increasingly focused on defending and advancing their narrower corporate interests. To Putin, these interests are sometimes in conflict with those of the state.
The result is that Putin’s associates are being replaced by political technocrats. This serves both parties. On the one hand, the president’s associates are glad to avoid the responsibilities and risks of state service. On the other hand, Putin himself prefers to deal with young technocrats, who are much easier to work with than those who see the president as an old friend.
The Political Technocrats are an expanding category of Putin’s elite. They are the workhorses of the system, serving as its stabilizers and entrusted with implementing government policy. These are figures who were not close to the president from the beginning, but who have earned his personal trust through their professionalism and track record in government. These professionals manage domestic policy (Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko), defense policy (Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu), and foreign policy (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov). They are also charged with control over the state’s financial well-being (Finance Minister Anton Siluanov), economic growth (new First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov), and oversight of monetary policy and the banking sector (Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina). None of these figures lost their positions in the January reshuffle of the cabinet, but none of them are irreplaceable either.
The Protectors. This group is comprised of the “watchmen” of the current regime and its ideologues. The hallmark of the protectors is that they share a conservative, conspiratorial, anti-Western ideology, argue for more repressive policies, and use aggressive rhetoric. They should not be confused with the siloviki, a narrower group which oversees the military and security and law. They include well-known front-line figures like Sergei Naryshkin and Alexander Bastrykin, but also more bureaucratic figures such as Nikolai Patrushev and Vyacheslav Volodin. The group is thus an opportunistic alliance between those who employ the repressive apparatus of the state and those who legitimate it through laws. Their ideology is becoming increasingly prominent in the official discourse, and their political influence is on the rise. Putin’s fourth presidential term has witnessed a growing alliance between the siloviki and the anti-liberal protectors seeking to build a more conservative and repressive regime.
The Implementers. These are the working parts or cogs of the machine. They can be identified by two criteria. They do not hold any particular personal value for Putin, and their position is fairly secure as long as they do not make big mistakes. These technocratic implementers include half of the deputy prime ministers, as well as nearly all of the cabinet ministers and the vast majority of the regional governors—with the exception of heavyweights such as Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, all of whom belong to more senior elite groups. Most federal judges also fall into the implementer category. Members of this tier are the main candidates for moving upward into the circle of political technocrats.
Russia has now officially entered a period of political change. The Kremlin’s principal goal is to modify the political regime and give it a new lease on life while preserving the political system and heading off any threat to that system from a domestic upheaval or Western pressure. As the Kremlin searches for new mechanisms to safeguard the viability of the system in anticipation of Putin’s departure from the presidency (and, eventually, from power), the Russian political regime is inevitably becoming less reliant on one person. The contours of a future configuration of power are beginning to take shape. In the new political regime, the system is designed to be more important than the current leader.
Yet the system is also riven with many internal contradictions. From afar, Russia may seem a country with a powerful and consolidated elite, closely knitted around its leader, Vladimir Putin. In reality, the Russian elite is becoming increasingly fragmented and conflict-ridden. The conflicts are arising not only over issues of influence or ownership; they are ideological in nature, too. That presents a very serious challenge for Putin, who has led his regime into a situation in which the most vocal and active section of the elite has turned out to be more radical than he himself is.
This lack of unity and growing fragmentation within the elite mean that virtually no lasting coalitions can be formed. Instead, each player acts according to their own corporate or political priorities. If one examines the five key tiers that make up Putin’s elite, it is clear that only one of them—the protectors—is taking on the role of the main internal irritant, and a source of systemic and ideological conflicts. This is something the power vertical has not seen on this scale since 1993, during the period of the standoff between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliament, the Supreme Soviet, which ended in bloodshed. The protectors are a category whose rise and ideological domination is a matter of concern to almost all of the other influential groups, whether they be Putin’s longtime associates such as Sergei Chemezov, the head of Rostec, or the linchpins of state policy, such as former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev (who will now hold a newly created position as Deputy Chairman of the Security Council) and head of the central bank Elvira Nabiullina.
The inter-elite schism is forming along one main dividing line: between the increasingly technocratic civilian section of the elite—i.e., those who are forced to remain politically neutral but who continue to be responsible for the country’s modernization—and the conservative, anti-Western “protectors” who occupy the vacuum left by the hollowing-out of public politics. It is an escalation of the disagreements over conservation versus progress, repression versus liberalization, pressure versus dialogue, and aggression versus reconciliation. The regime will have to deal with these conflicts during the implementation of any scenario for the transition of power. Regardless of whether Putin remains the key player even after 2024 or allows a handpicked successor to actually rule the country, a deepening of this schism is unavoidable. In the meantime, the actions of the leadership are becoming less coordinated and more disjointed.
The foreign policy backdrop will continue to play an important role that heavily influences domestic policy changes in Russia. The more confrontational the external environment and the more intransigent the positions the regime takes with regard to the West, the more political advantages the protectors will receive, along with the moral justification to demand a tightening of the screws and an unceasing battle against both foreign and domestic threats. At the same time, there is little hope today of a domestic thaw, even in the event of a hypothetical improvement of relations with the West. Any decrease in the much-hyped foreign threat is unlikely to be able to stop the momentum of continuing conservatism and state repression. It might slow that process down, but cannot halt it altogether.
As the 2020s begin, Russia is entering a phase in which only some kind of domestic crisis can break the accumulated impact of political inertia. This could be provoked by serious blunders by the authorities, a major failure to address some huge national problem, or a breaking point when the estrangement of the authorities from society becomes so great that the bulk of the population refuses to keep faith with the existing system. It is precisely this domestic dynamic that can eventually lead to the formation of a non-Putin elite, which would at first be amorphous, but could gradually become more clearly defined. The core of this alternative elite would most likely be composed of the same class of technocratic modernizers, who would both have experience and be disillusioned by their service to the Putin regime.
Paradoxically, the fact that the Putin system revolves less and less around one man, Vladimir Putin himself, makes it stable. Russia’s new elites are adaptable and they are putting more of their energy into defending the regime itself than into preserving its creator. Yet this situation only endures while the country itself is stable. If crisis strikes, it will expose the cracks in the elites, and the regime could suddenly look a lot more fragile.
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