I have often stated that I do not support Vladimir Putin’s third term as president of Russia. The reasons are that state-building in Russia has now reached a reasonable level (not as efficient as in some other countries but certainly not as bad as in Yemen or complete absent like in Iraq) and that Russia’s economy has recovered enough now to an extene that it is time for a new vision, new people and new policies. Naturally, it is obvious that Putin has the support of the majority of the people but sometimes in politics you do not need to do what you think is good but what is good for the country.
It makes sense that Putin was so easily elected. People associate him with stability and the the meteoric increase of wages and the general, very real, improvement of living conditions practically everywhere in Russia. But still, the question is whether Putin can cope with a changing Russia. In a recent post, Russiawatcher Andras Toth-Czifra made some pretty good observations. He emphasized that the rivalry between the different groups has started to develop centrifugal elements. And concludes that Putin will try to change his old system by becoming a rule-setter instead of a decider. He also added however, that Putin lacks an ideology to ensure elite stability.
In the past week we saw an example of what happens if the current system goes on without any changes.
In times of uncertainty or change, the current system is especially vulnerable to so-called “clan warfare”. An example of this is the uncertainty at the end of Putin’s second term when it was not known who would succeed Putin as Russia’s third president. This was compounded when investigators began investigating the Tri Kita furniture company in Moscow. The company has allegedly smuggled 400 tons of furniture without paying the customs duty worth 5 million US Dollar. It became all the more serious after it appeared that high ranking senior officials of Russia’s FSB were closely involved. Eventually, some FSB officials were fired whilst others were demoted. It involved the FSN (Federal Narcotics Agency), with its director, Viktor Cherkesov and the prosecutors office, headed by Yuri Chaika one one side and the FSB led by Patrushev/Sechin and the Investigative Committee, headed by Bastrykin on the other. The Cherkesov/Chaika group managed to get rid of some FSB employees and got Patrushev demoted but Putin created the Investigative Committee, headed by Alexander Bastrykin, a former classmate from St. Petersburg and close to the Sechin/Patrushev group. The Investigative Committee, known in Russia as SK, took control of some high profile cases and 18.000 investigators were transfered from the prosecutors office to the investigative committee. Officially, Putin said that a new agency was needed to streamline law-enforcement reform but everybody knew that the prosecutors office had gotten too influential. I think it was an additional reason, Putin must have been disappointed with the lack of progress in certain cases (Politkovskaya for example) and the creation of the SK was therefore amove, typical of Russian politics.
Blast from the past
So let’s go to the events of the past few weeks. Key events were the demonstrations (especially the “violent” on the 6th of May) and of course, the move by the investigative committee: searching the houses/apartments of prominent opposition leaders like Udal’tsov and Navalny on June 11th. The hashtag #1937, refering to the year of the Terror was a trend on Twitter and everybody “assumed” that the bloody regime was finally cracking down on the opposition. However, Kommersant came with an interesting analysis today. A conspiracy to get rid of Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the investigative committee, established in 2007 by Putin to balance out the factions.
Consider this. First, on the same day, June 11th, the day when the searches took place, Alexander Khinstein a United Russia deputy, announced on Twitter that he would publish compromising information about Bastrykin in the coming days. Secondly,that Wednesday, the chief editor of “Novaya Gazeta” Dmitry Muratov published an open letter in which he accused Bastrykin of taking chief editor Sergei Sokolov to a forrest and threatened him with repriasals should he publish unflattering information about the actions of his subordinates during the investigation of the massacre in the village of Kushchevskaya.
We could see the actions of the investigative committee (and thus, of Bastrykin) in the light of these events. Bastrykin clearly knew that his old enemies from the Tri Kita case (Khinstein is close to Chaika) had compromising material on him so he decided to act first and show is loyalty. I would add that he presented Putin with a fait accompli. Everybody knows that Putin does not like to make consessions to the opposition. If it is indeed true that Bastrykin treatened Sokolov, Putin could have well fired him but after the searched that would have seemed like a concession to the demonstrators. Thus, what Bastrykin did was a kind of insurance management. Add to this that neither the FSB, the Interior Ministry (its policemen were busy with the demonstration on June the 12th), the prosecutors office have and the so-called department “E” responsible for handling demonstration and demonstrators did not make any comment and it seems plausible that the action if the investigative committee had other reasons.
Apparently, Putin had decided that Russia would deal with the people who acted violently on May the 6th much like Britain had done in the wake of the riots in London some time ago. After this, the operational details were left to the Silovik structures.
Bastrykin continued to deny that he threatened the journalist of the Novaya Gazeta, arguing that he hadn’t been in nature for years because he was so busy. Strangely enough, he eventually apologized to Sokolov and Sokolov, (Bastrykin still denied that he had been in this forrest) concluded that this was sufficient for him. A source in the investigative committee told Kommersant that the story was probably fabricated by the prosecutors office because there were rumors that Bastrykin would become the new prosecutor general. For his part, a source in the prosecutors office calls this nonsense and says that Bastrykin’s position is under threat anyways.
It might well be that the Kremlin was not happy with what the investigative committee did and made Bastrykin apologize. An official told Kommersant that the Kremlin thinks that the searches just before the demonstrations were not necessary and the scandal might have actually let to an increased attendance of the demonstration. The source adds that senior officials were as surprised by the searches as everybody else and immediately started the damage control system by covering the searches in a neutral way on TV and the media without commments from Kremlin-friendly political scientists or United Russia.
In the evening, he concludes, the media started to focus on the million euros in cash, found in the appartment of Ksenia Sobchak and thus shifted the focus from the investigation into the riots to illegal enrichment by Sobchak. The situation was now put under control of those responsible for the internal policy in the presidential administration. Sobchak’s money proved to be a very useful distraction. The story does not end here. Today, deputies of the Communist Party in the Duma wrote to Yuri Chaika, Russia’s federal prosecutor General, and stated that they wanted the prosecutor general office to look into the actions of the investigative committee. Especially at the actions of Alexander Bastrykin and the Vladimir Markin, the head of the press service of the investigative committee. Their problem with Markin is that he got his diploma at the Moscow Insitute of Economics and Culture, where the prosecutors office found gross violations of the “legislation on education”. Read: they suspect that Markin probably got his diploma illegally. Not that this is uncommon in Russia but is serves as a good excuse to get rid of what is apparently a key Bastrykin ally. And I almost forgot… Cherkesov is a deputy of the Communist Party in the Duma and, as you know, an ally of Chaika.
Don’t get lost in the wilderness of mirrors
In one of the episodes of “The Company” a serial about the Cold War, Kim Philby tells James Angleton, the director of the CIA counter intelligence unit, not to get lost in the wilderness of mirrors when it comes to maschinations of the KGB. We will probably never know what the true story behind this is. Gleb Pavlosky doubts that Bastrykin could have done anything without somekind of signal from the Kremlin. But if this story is true and a powerful and influential agency does something without the knowledge of Putin it seems that the Power Vertical, which I considered somewhat of a myth anyways, is not cracking but is already broken. This is what I mean (and what Andras Toth-Czifra calls a lack of an unquestionable ideology) with my lukewarm support of Putin.
With the number of protesters increasing we will probably also see parts of the elite, like Bastrykin, Khinstein and others, who are going to use these protests for their own political gain. Putin is facing a severe crisis in the elite. It remains to be seen how he is going to keep the elite together.