Protests, Putin and the Russian Elite

A look at the Russian power players in the wake of December's protests.

While the political impact of Russia’s December protests remains uncertain, demonstrations in Moscow and other Russian cities have expressed public disappointment with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s economic management and even some genuine anger over his stage-managed nomination as the United Russia presidential candidate. What remains to be seen is how Russia’s elite will react if the country appears unstable.

For the time being, those at the highest levels in Russia’s elite appear to have decided that they will either hang together in supporting Putin or hang separately if he falls. They may well have received encouragement from nationalist anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, whose increasingly strident rhetoric—addressing a crowd of demonstrators on December 24, he said “there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin”—is rapidly approaching open calls for violent revolution. As the English writer Samuel Johnson said over two centuries ago, “the prospect of a hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Russia’s top government and business leaders must be concentrating intently on their country’s future and its more personal implications.

Nevertheless, even some in Prime Minister Putin’s immediate circle might be hedging their bets—and they are only one small (albeit influential) segment of the elite.

More widely, attitudes toward Putin within Russia’s elite depend on several factors. First, of course, is the probability that in remaining generally united around Putin, Russia’s political and business elite can ensure their continued survival individually and as a group. The prime minister’s reelection as president is a key step in that process, but it is only the first step. Managing Russia after the election may prove more difficult, particularly if the economy stagnates or deteriorates.

Second are the perceived potential dangers if Putin is not reelected. If Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov is elected, some might fear corruption trials, asset seizures or even imprisonment. Others might consider Zyuganov a part of the establishment and think him unlikely to overturn today’s rules of the game. If Mr. Navalny and an army of the discontented—which may or may not actually exist—storm the barricades and to try rearrange Russian politics by force, the stakes could be higher.

In Russia’s personality-driven political system, the third factor is loyalty to Putin. Since Russia’s political loyalties appear to be quite “concrete” (konkretny­—meaning not abstract but tied to specific expectations), this will likely include its own calculations of the potential benefits of supporting Putin openly and the potential costs of crossing him at a decisive time. Between now and March 4, or indeed afterward, Putin and Russia’s elite may have a Machiavelli moment that tests whether it is in fact better to be feared than loved.

With that in mind, the prime minister cannot take the support of Russia’s elite for granted. Loyalty to “the party of power” is contingent on power; perceived weakness can quickly snap its bonds as each individual seeks to protect his or her own personal interests in a time of crisis. This in turn puts pressure on Putin to avoid any appearance of weakness, possibly reinforcing the preexisting instincts of the man who said “the weak are beaten” after the horrific 2004 attack and hostage taking at a school in Beslan.

This is all highly subjective and, as a result, is more suited to speculation than to analysis. Still, it may be useful to consider some admittedly speculative generalizations in thinking about elite support for Putin as the presidential election approaches.

Analytically, Russia’s elite is split along multiple cross-cutting lines—the lines between politics and business; the federal, regional and local levels; pro-government forces, the “approved” systemic opposition (who oppose Putin but currently operate within the rules he has established), and the nonsystemic opposition (who oppose Putin and the rules he has established); those inside the security services and those outside; and Putin’s senior political lieutenants, principal business dependents and everyone else.

Those in the nonsystemic opposition—leaders like Nikolai Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov—have already chosen sides. Thus some of their calculations are already evident; this segment of the elite is already opposing Putin and the governing structures he created. What is not known is whether these individuals would support extraconstitutional measures if Russia faces a real political crisis or widespread violence. Doing so could carry significant risks for people who oppose the system but are currently generally tolerated by Russia’s regime.

The systemic opposition also might confront this choice if Russia’s political system comes apart. More immediately, however, politicians like Communist Party head Gennadi Zyuganov, Just Russia leaders Sergei Mironov or nationalist eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky might see an opportunity to redefine the rules in their favor after December 4 State Duma elections that substantially increased their collective representation in the parliament and handed United Russia a symbolic defeat. While some have been more independent of Putin than others, and there are questions about the seriousness of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s possible candidacy, a few in this group might even see an opportunity for an opposition leader to win the presidency. The natural response would be tentative but escalating tests of the boundaries, accelerated by the pressures of the looming March 4 election.