They have finally found a name for Vladimir Putin’s political regime – “Politburo 2.0.” This, at least, was the comic headline in the business daily Kommersant, publicizing findings of a recent survey of Russian political scientists asked to describe the way the country is governed.
Their consensus scheme describes several clans linked by business interests, shared Soviet-era backgrounds and, sometimes, family relationships. Atop them all sits Putin, who plays the role of balancer of interests and arbiter in disputes. It is a system that, as political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin put it, “can only work towards self-preservation, not development.”
The study reflects well the results of the nearly twelve years that Putin has dominated the political landscape and shaped it in the way he wanted.
I think the “Politburo 2.0” description is quite apt. Russia is not a one-man dictatorship like its neighbour and ally, Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko makes all the important decisions, pretty much by himself, and depends on no one. In Russia, Putin may be the number one politician, but you cannot say he is the only one. He serves as the public face of a group of people who, essentially, control the Russian economy and its financial system; those who, in fact, own Russia.
In a broader sense, Putin is the defender and publicity man for a wide swathe of the state bureaucracy that has benefitted hugely from his rule. It is a symbiotic regime: all those people who prefer to stay in the shadows depend on President Putin, who expresses and protects their interests and serves as their chief communicator with the rest of the country.
But Putin in turn depends on the country’s bureaucracy, top military and security brass, as well as select oligarchs, to provide his power base and share the decision-making and financing burden.
There is another key difference with Belarus: Russia’s ruling elite is keen to become part of the global business elite and Putin’s (as well as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s) role is to act as its international representative. In Belarus there is no elite to speak of in the first place, and Lukashenko’s emphasis is on not letting one appear. That is a task he has pursued successfully for the last eighteen years.
This provides for a different political future for regimes in Moscow and Minsk. Lukashenko’s future is pretty much determined: he has to cling to power to the bitter end, which, in all probability, will be abrupt and, quite possibly, brutal. He is absolutely alone and has no one to fall back on or take advice from. Although he is preparing - in true Mubarak-Gaddafi-Assad fashion - to transfer power to his son, this transition is not at all ensured. Moreover, much depends on who will be running the political show in Moscow, which, in fact, controls the essential elements of Belarusian economy.
Vladimir Putin has more manoeuvring space and has a better chance of graceful – or at least safe - exit when the time comes. As of now, it seems that he is seriously considering occupying that famous green study in the Kremlin for two more presidential terms – i.e. twelve years.
Outwardly there are no signs that the ruling class is opposed to such an option. But there are signs of rumbling in the broader bureaucracy and state-connected business. One sign is the departure and increasing political activity of Alexei Kudrin – former finance minister and one of Putin’s closest advisors. It is also evident that the once monolithic United Russia party – the regime’s bedrock and personnel pool – is in disarray. And regional elections, in which opposition candidates will have more chances to compete (at least officially), loom large.
It looks as if Putin is unable or unwilling to recognize that the country has changed, not only since 2000 when he first became president, but even since 2008, when he temporarily let Medvedev take over. There is less tolerance for inefficiency, corruption and nepotism, which are rampant in Russia, and more demand for self-government, competence and efficient civil service.
And while the president evidently thinks that it is just an invention of a few opposition journalists, those who interact more with real people know otherwise. And eventually they will voice their opinion.
The old Politburo may not have been responsible to anyone, but its members were not simultaneously billionaires. This complicates Putin’s situation. He may be the strongest of them all, but he also has to constantly prove that his public actions serve the “Politburo” well. That is becoming increasingly difficult as Russia becomes more volatile and the ruling elite needs more flexibility. Putin is confident he can still handle everything. The question is, how long will his entourage hold the same opinion?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.