Public Squabbling by Members of Russian Elites Ushering in New Kind of Politics, Davydov Says

File Photo of Kremlin Aerial View, adapted from .gov source

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, March 8, 2019)

For most of Vladimir Putin’s reign, members of his power elite have presented themselves in public as the united supporters of his regime, Ivan Davydov says; but now “the situation has changed,” with some of these people sharply criticizing others among this category, a development that opens the door to a new kind of political system.

In a commentary for the Open Media portal yesterday, the editor of Novaya etika, points to the clash between Economic Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin and Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin as exhibit A of a much broader phenomenon (openmedia.io/exclusive/pochemu-vysshie-chinovniki-rossii-nachali-ssoritsya-publichno/).

Their public clash, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky noted, has no precedent in the last 20 years. Such things simply didn’t happen. Obviously Oreshkin is in a weak position and has made numerous mistakes, and Volodin is “a most experienced master of political intrigue.” But having this all play out in public is something new, Davydov suggests.

According to the commentator, what happened in the Duma where Volodin cut off Oreshkin during his report is indicative of more than Oreshkin’s weakness and the Duma speaker’s skill as a political infighter. It shows that a basic feature of the Putin regime is becoming frayed around the edges or even breaking down.

That feature is this: “a complete opacity” as to how power is organized at the top of the system. All public institutions are simply a cover for ones that really matter, but about the latter, none of the participants is supposed to speak, Davydov says. All descriptions of how things are done in Moscow, such as talk about “‘a new Politburo,'” are based on rumors or leaks.

In the time of the USSR, he continues, “Sovietologists had at least one eternal criterion – the order in which ‘the Kremlin elders’ were standing on the Mausoleum. Those who try to analyze the Putin system do not have even that.”

There are of course two obvious axioms as to how the Putin system functions behind the scenes. “The first and chief among them is that the president is always beyond criticism.” Neither people in the party of power or the leaders of the systemic opposition are ever allowed to say otherwise.

And the second axiom is that “public conflicts among representatives of the powers that be are impossible. All dog fights take place only under the cover, for the public, the powers are a collective united around the president and together they are leading the country to its inevitable flourishing.”

The Oreshkin-Volodin is hardly the only case recntly where there has been public disagreement among the Putin powers that be. The removal of Ulyukayev and the arrest of the head of Baring East also provoked controversy with senior people saying that they did not agree with what had been done.

Such dissent happened on occasion before 2014, but “the country now is in a ring of enemies; and all representatives of the authorities are engaged in a common task,” one in which the people must be reassured of the regime’s correctness by having them be a united front at leas tin public, Davydov says.

Obviously, “not everything is in order even in the party of power,” he continues. After the pension age increase, numerous more junior members of United Russia came out against the government’s plan. But “order then was quickly restored,” although the fact that it had to be was a signal.

Up to now, took, no one has violated the taboo of criticizing Putin; but the criticism of specific policies opens the door to that. Indeed, Davydov says, as officials who thought they were “eternal” become more “nervous” about keeping their jobs, some of them are beginning to “fight for their positions” and in doing so, “forgetting sometimes the main rules of the game.”

As this goes on, Davydov says, sooner or later, someone will “decide to take note of the fact that the president is not right in everything and even on rare occasionally is capable of making mistakes.” Ordinary Russians may not care much about these differences – they have their own concerns – but this change in behavior points to future changes in the system itself.