The ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine reinvigorated the discussions about the nature of Putin’s regime in Russia. The debate has been simmering for decades. Increasingly, however, many critics and dissidents both in Russia and the West are trying to predict the collapse of Putin’s autocracy as a direct result from his policies towards its weaker neighbor.
A strong boost to these speculation came after Boris Niemtsov’s murder and the most recent public “disappearance” of Putin that lasted for about a week. The causes of both have not been clarified yet and it is doubtful that there will be any concrete explanation of these events when bearing in mind that transparency is not by far an asset of the Kremlin.
To answer the question how Putin’s regime can be decomposed, observers and critics should instead be looking at what has created this regime in the first place and, moreover, what has kept it so stable for all these years.
Let’s simplify the picture in order to get the essentials. At the core of power in Putin’s Russia are two main elements – oligarchs and the law enforcement agencies. The latter are more precisely known as “silovie vedomstva” or “siloviki’ – the terms are a collective name for all agencies and institutions that have the authority to use force or pressure (in Russian “sila” means “force”) in their operations. This is the most simplified representation of the regime. Drawing a comparison from the country’s history we see that there is a “tzar”; there are “senators” (or aristocracy); and there are those who serve in the “imperial guard”.
As a rule in Russian political life, king-making is done by “the muscle” – “siloviki”. The close control over these institutions is crucial for the one on top of the power pyramid. The relationship is ideally symbiotic and should be closely balanced. Once it is off balance, the results are purges, coups, revolutions – all events already seen throughout history.
So what is Putin’s trick?
For about a decade and a half now Putin is sitting firmly at the top of the power pyramid in the Kremlin. The secret to his “durability” is the creation of a network of law enforcement agencies that continuously compete with one another. There are a number of such institutions which have access to arms and can operate almost independently – Ministry of Interior (MVD), Federal Security Service (FSB, ex. KGB), Federal Protection Service (FSO, which guards federal institutions and VIPs), Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, i.e. the military intelligence unit), the Prosecutor’s office (Prokuratura), The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (separate from the Prosecutor and almost fully independent), Federal Anti-Drug Authority . To these we should also add Kadirov’s paramilitaries, the Cossack irregular hosts, and the Armed Forces and the picture will be complete.
This patchwork is a mix of Soviet-era, Yeltsin era, and Putin era institutional building. All these years at the top Putin has been encouraging the competition between these powerful groups with the idea to apply the old adage “divide and conquer”. Most of these institutions are even openly opposed to each other. For example, The Army feels overshadowed by the GRU which is nowadays receiving a lot of financial support and its roles are expanding into fields that before were reserved for the military only. Kadirov’s circles have won many enemies among the hardline FSB members. The Prosecutor’s office and the Investigative Committee are constantly battling over their prerogatives.
In this sense, Putin comes as the balancing element. He is needed to guide the general policy framework and give direction. With the president’s support each of these groups can become more powerful than the others. This can create both opportunities and threats for Putin’s position depending on his moves.
What does this mean?
Coming back to our initial question, namely what can bring the regime down, we see that it is exactly this competition so carefully nurtured that can eventually backfire. The same structures that created the “Putin regime” can be its undoing. Change in Russia cannot come from any kind of opposition party, general protest movement or “colour revolution”. This path of development is just wishful thinking. The real change of regime will be brewed within the circles of the “siloviki”. When the interests of the actors behind the president’s back would come to clash or would eventually be threatened by his abilities or disabilities, a new deal would be needed. Some activities of the street or the opposition could possibly be supported to give legitimacy for the world and the media but the core of affairs will remain restrained to the power elite. With this in mind, any real “reform” in Russia is very unlikely. Whatever figure may eventually be chosen to succeed Putin or, alternatively, whatever form of regime may come to life, first and foremost will be satisfaction of interests and compromise between all “siloviki”. The interest of the general public will hardly be in the priority agenda.
Concluding in this line of thoughts, there can be little reason for wishful thinking and gullible believe in the democratization of Russia at least in the short term.