Staunton, September 24 – For two hundred years, “the history of Russia has been the history of significant political trials,” Vladimir Pastukhov says. Today is “no exception,” and the Ulyukayev trial now taking place is “a clear indication one can expect a fundamental reordering of the Russian political system in the near future.”
In these trials, the St. Antony’s College Russian historian says, it is important to recognize that the nominal charges aren’t necessarily the real ones, that the persons charged are not the real targets, and that the organizers of these cases may become the victims if they go beyond what the first person in the state wants (republic.ru/posts/86529).
“There is real to suspect,” he writes, “that the trial of former economic development minister Ulyukayev should become a kind of new Kirov affair and serve as a triggering mechanism for serious changes in the fate of Russia” and that it will open “a new era in the life of the Putin nomenklatura.”
The power arrangements based on “understandings” have clearly “exhausted themselves,” Pastukhov argues. And “the psychological stability, when those who observed a number of simple mafia type rules were guaranteed security and ‘defense from the law’ which is not to be confused with ‘the defense of the law.’”
Instead, “the Putin guard is entering into unfamiliar territory where no one is protected from anything, where following the rules is no longer useful.” Indeed, the Ulyukayev case highlights this development and thus raise bigger questions about where Russia is heading than a first glance might suggest.
According to the official version, Igor Sechin was “the bait” who could get Ulyukayev to accept a bribe, even though there likely wasn’t a bribe but rather the kind of under the table payments that have characterized the Putin system from the beginning. And thus the real question, Pastukhov says, is why did Sechin agree to such a role.
The real explanation, the historian suggests, lies in politics not economics, in Sechin’s pursuit of a new political role and not in anyone getting wealthier at least in the short term. Sechin had been pleased earlier to get the possibilities for unlimited wealth that a nominally economic and not political role provided when he was put in charge of Rosneft.
But “sometimes one must have an official political status as well,” and Sechin’s desire to recover a political post is why he was willing to get involved in the organization of a case that in most cases he would have simply avoided. Achieving such a return, however, was going to be hard because no one at the top of the political pyramid wanted him back.
The people there were “quite comfortable without him” and therefore Sechin “was forced to come up with a situation in which his return would become for the president both possible and desirable.” If that is the case, then Ulyukayev wasn’t Sechin’s target but rather “a lever” he hoped to use like “a newly minted Archimedes to overturn Russia.”
According to Pastukhov, it is a matter of indifference to Sechin whether Ulyukayev is a minister or a prisoner. What is important to him instead is “where the government is.” Sechin has his own ideas about government policy and they diverge from those of Dmitry Medvedev and “’the liberal bloc.’”
At present, Sechin is one of dozens of people who live in the reflected light of Vladimir Putin and whose positions and power are dependent on him. “Being in fact one of the dozen most influential people [in the country], he is nothing politically.” And as a result, he has become one of “’revolutionaries in spite of themselves’” who need change.
“In ‘peace’ time,” Pastukhov says, this wouldn’t be happening. And the fact that it is suggests that “if Sechin is becoming so nervous, then even he has begun to reflect about ‘a Russia without Putin.’ If something happens with Putin, then Sechin could lose everything that he has now. And [his] dreams about a place in the Kremlin would become unachievable.”
Only those with official positions would have a change. Medvedev, for example, would simply become president if something happened to Putin, Pastukhov says. But for those like Sechin, the game is more critical because he needs to create a situation in which “the last become first” – and thus the game with Ulyukayev.
But Ulyukayev’s arrest was not intended to be an end but rather a beginning. Others would follow and the road to Sechin’s return would be opened. If his plan was to convert “his actual power into political power, then such a risky game was justified [because] the Kremlin is worth a mass.”
But in initiating this play, Sechin “forgot about the master of the taiga” who has his own plans. In Sechin’s game, “Putin was reduced to the role of a passive center around whom a game is taking place but who is not in the game.” But Putin isn’t prepared to accept that role and hence he “demonstratively” showed this to Sechin and the rest.
That doesn’t mean that Putin disagrees with Sechin. It only means that Putin wants to be the one who determines what happens and when not anyone else, even if that other person acts in ways that he might like. Putin may be quite prepared to dispense with his “old friends” in pursuit of the maintenance of his own power.
“A latent expropriation of the expropriators is gaining strength,” Pastukhov argues. “In the political life of Russia, a tectonic shift is taking place” and “there is the sense that Russia is descending in to the chaos of ‘administered terror.’” What Sechin has done is part of this, but Putin is not going to allow anyone else to be the director of the play.
Russia is a country where only one person can rule at a time. The history of Stalin’s reign shows that clearly. And what we now know, Pastukhov says, is that it is difficult to imagine a situation in the 1930s in which the Soviet dictator would have agreed to any “’deputy director’” even if the latter were committed to the same course of action.
“I suggest,” Pastukhov continues, “that Sechin did not receive support not because his ideas are alien to Putin’s but on the contrary that they have always had on this issue a complete unity off views. It is simple that Putin prefer to run things without voluntary assistants” however much they may appear to be doing his will.
Sechin has thus made a play and lost, the historian observers. “But having stopped Sechin, Putin in fact has not said ‘no’ to the philosophy of a game without rules” which he personally finds “ever more attractive. The idea that it is possible to control Russia only with the help of total fear is becoming ever more popular in the elites.”
“Putin understands,” Pastukhov concludes, “that the time of ‘not taking decisions’ is rapidly ending” and that he must either change direction or move “from repression to terror. But this must be his choice and not the choice of Sechin. Putin has taken a pause,” one that won’t last long because he “must either move backwards or forward.” He can’t stand still anymore.
“Elements of a new revolutionary situation are rapidly being formed” in the wake of Crimea and Syria,” the St. Antony’s scholar says. “Those on top cannot live in the old way, as the Ulyukayev case has shown to all. In principle, Sechin shot in the right direction but he didn’t hit his goal.”