Staunton, January 24 – Russian realities are changing more quickly than the understanding of them is, Vladimir Pastukhov says; and nowhere is this phenomenon occurring more quickly than with regard to the role of “the friends” of Vladimir Putin at the top of the political pyramid.
Over the last several years, the St. Antony’s College Russian expert says, “the political role of the so-called close circle” of Putin’s friends “has fallen continuously” even as the role of key parts of the bureaucracy has grown, a development that has not made the Russian regime “more progressive but rather just the reverse” (republic.ru/posts/89091).
That is because, Pastukhov argues, “the growth of the influence of the bureaucracy has led to a situation where the drivers of the political development of Russia are the mistakes of the majority rather than the egoistic interests of the minority.” In this, “Russia [again] has made two steps back without making one forward” and become “a hostage of archaic appeals.”
In short, he continues, “the Russia of the beginning of the Putin administration and the Russia at the concluding phase of it (in the constitutional sense) are two different countries,” a reflection of the fact that the Kremlin leader has been able to put in place “a mechanism for the realization of his personal power … by returning [the country] to its traditional course.”
When Putin unexpectedly became president, “the bureaucratic environment in which he found himself was predominantly hostile … Had Putin not taken extraordinary measures to strengthen his personal power, in the best case he would have remained up to now a puppet in the hands of several financial clans.”
But Putin wasn’t willing to agree to that, and to escape that fate, Pastukhov says, he “acted in the manner traditional for Russia: he created a parallel system of power from people personally devoted to him and on whom he relied for the resolution of any issues.” That is how Russian rulers have always acted.
In such a system, “the state bureaucracy doesn’t disappear, but it is reduced to a secondary and technical role, [while] the political and control functions are concentrated in the hands of a narrow circle of those close to the chief of state.” That builds the power of the ruler, but it has “its own shortcomings.”
Most importantly, the St. Antony’s scholar says, it can mean that the ruler remains for a long time only “first among equals” rather than his own man and thus is forced to put up with many things from this clique he would prefer not to. And that has led Putin to seek a way out both by forming “a union” with the people and by putting his own stamp on the bureaucracy.
“This is a [death] sentence” for those in the inner circle, Pastukhov continues. He doesn’t need them as he did earlier but can use the bureaucracy against them to reinforce his power and weaken theirs. That doesn’t make his entourage irrelevant, but it increasingly it means that they will keep their wealth but be excluded from politics.
The new arrangement means that “the Russian power will become more regular” and that “the spontaneous autocracy is being replaced by an organized one.” That shift has long-term consequences, but they won’t “always be positive and progressive” because “the mentality of the Russian bureaucracy can be no less odious and dangerous” than that of the nouveau riche.
As a result, two apparently contradictory trends are likely: Putin will be able to make decisions without the constraints he has been operating under, but he will be affected if not reined in by the bureaucracy than he has been, and especially the military and security portions of it.
“Putin as has been the case and even more than before will decide everything,” Pastukhov says. “But the defining influence on his decisions will gradually begin to be exerted not so much by informal advice and recommendations of the members of his inner circle … than by the formal position of the numerous ministries … and other bureaucratic institutions.”
According to this analyst, “that means that the decisions of the president to a significant degree will depend not so much or at least not only on the personal struggle of various groups of his comrades on arms as on the institutional competition within the bureaucratic apparatus” of the Russian state, especially between the force structures and the civilian bureaucracies.
For Russia historically, the former have been more important than the latter; and that is again true with Putin. (“The political role of the civilian bureaucracy is manifested only in periods of crisis when the system requires reconstruction.”) But the siloviki are divided too between the army and the police in the broad sense.
Consequently, Pastukhov suggests, “a choice in favor of this or that political strategy often depends on which of the two force blocks turns out to be politically dominant at any given time.” Before the Crimean Anschluss, the military had moved into this role, “and they were able to convince” Putin that the security of the country required that action.
Putin’s friends and the police certainly did not see Crimea as an unqualified victory, but the military did because they could see that they would “only win” if Putin moved in that direction. “Their influence would begin to grow at unprecedented rates,” the military industrial complex would expand, and they would gain the upper hand over Putin’s inner circle.
“The growing role of the bureaucracy in general and the military bureaucracy in particular with a high degree of probability will lead not to liberalization but to the further growh of isolationism, monopolization in the economy, the tightening of the screws in politics, a lack of balance in social policy … and to the further militarization of public consciousness.”
That will be the case, Pastukhov says, because “the military bureaucracy in Russia is the bearer of one of the most stable archetypes of Russian reactionary thought. From generation to generation, it has reproduced the archaic view” of security as based on “the defense of the perimeter” rather than anything else.
The centerpiece of this conception is “an understanding of security as the defense of the external border” and the related notion that the further out the border is pushed away from Moscow, the more secure Russia is. “Such a conception is one of the causes” that Russia has and continues to seek to expand “in all directions.”
“The revival of the political role of the Russian bureaucracy and above all of the military bureaucracy recreates a situation in which the country is again under the sway of its former misconceptions and prejudices,” Pastukhov says. And that conception is now dominating Putin’s calculations.
The departure of Putin won’t put an end to this by itself. “A new Russia will begin … with new thinking” on this point. Gorbachev tried but failed in carrying this out. But “in order to survive, Russia must rethink its place in the world, reject pretensions to exceptionalism, find a new non-imperial format, rely on allies other than the army and fleet, and fit itself into a worldwide division of labor.”
“All this will require much greater effort than the struggle with Putinism,” Pastukhov says. “Sooner of later Putin will leave: nature will take care of that.” But if the conception he reflects now isn’t changed, “if his successor begins again to defend ‘the perimeter,’” it won’t matter if he is a committed “democrat and liberal.”
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