Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Conflict within Russian Elite Shifting from Horizontal to Vertical, Khazin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 15 – The conflict within the Russian elite is no longer primarily a “horizontal” one among various clans but rather a “vertical” one between the pinacle of the elite and its larger base, and the winner in that fight is likely to be the part of the elite that proves more successful in mobilizing society against the other, according to a Moscow economist.

            In an essay posted on the portal yesterday, Mikhail Khazin argues that the vertical conflict is nothing new in Russian history and that the future of the country almost certainly will once again depend on which of the sides is able to attract society to its side (

                For most of the last two decades, he writes, analysts have focused on the “horizontal” struggles of clans within the Russian elite and ignored the sharper and ultimately more fateful “vertical” battles between the country’s most senior leadership and those around it who are supposed to be its executors.

            That kind of intra-elite conflict has many precedents in Russian history during which the ruler found himself blocked by other members of the elite and forced to take measures, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to try to force the latter to do his will when doing so would entail a loss of their powers and positions.

            This lower elite today is prepared to support all sorts of reforms as long as they do not touch its power or call into question its untouchability, Khazin continues, but its members invariably resist doing anything that might undercut themselves, whatever the consequences might be for the country as a whole.

            According to Khazin, “the contemporary ‘nomenklatura’ is an actively russophobic system; for it, the Russian people is the most harmful part of the country because it is always creating obstacles” for what this elite wants to do.” And what is worse, this russophobia of the elite, while influenced by its love for the West, is “completely home grown.”

            Because of it, he continues, “they sincerely do not see or understand the political threats to the country.” They turn aside any discussion of them by suggesting that such issues are not their concern or are being taken up only by those above them. That is because unless they are threatened, they do not see any threats.

            “Up to a certain movement, the upper political part of the elite and the lower or mass part live together in a completely friendly manner.” But in recent months, “this idyl has begun to fall apart.” And that puts Vladimir Putin in a position which recalls that of Paul I or, more recently, Georgy Malenkov, not to mention “certain other historical personages.”

                Khazin says that he “does not know how Putin himself and his closest aides imagine the situation.”  Most likely, they are aware of this danger because they, in contrast to most of the lower portion of the elite, have had long experience with “political struggle at the geopolitical level” and thus are inclined to think in those terms.

            This situation, the economist argues, “does not have anything in common to the famous dichotomy of ‘the good tsar and the bad boyars,’ because a year ago ‘the tsar’ and ‘the boyars’ were not distinguishable.” And today the tsar wants only that the power vertical he constructed remain subordinate to him.

            “The misfortune is that ‘the vertical’ first of all does not see this threat, second, does not consider it a threat, and third, on the contrary, considers this threat [only] an attempt to force it to do something.”  None of this, Khazin stresses, “has any relationship to the interests of the people; it is a purely intra-elite conflict.”

            If the economic recession continues, the economist says, “this conflict will intensify,” and that means that “the most significant question” is “when will the actors begin to attract the people” to their side in order to use the population as a weapon against the other part of the elite. Indeed, “the involvement of society is becoming practically inevitable.”

            That will intensify the conflict within the elite, Khazin says, adding that he thinks this new stage may begin as soon as this fall.

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