Sergei Sobyanin: man after Russia’s heart?

As new mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin inherited a hugely wealthy city and a mass of problems. Putin’s vertical of power is collapsing and there are elections ahead. How will Sobyanin manage the inevitable political infighting, wonders Vladimir Pastukhov.

News from Moscow continues to be eye-catching and dynamic: people are being replaced, assets are being redistributed, and there are powerful upward and downward political currents. Russia is listening to the thump of its heartbeat, and trying to work out if it is merely suffering from heart weakness again, or having a full-blown heart attack. In Sobyanin, meanwhile, the political form created by Luzhkov has at last found its real content.

For 20 years, Yury Luzhkov positioned himself as an “executive” who had little interest in politics, and who was completely immersed in the day to day routine of Moscow engineering and construction. This image became so firmly associated with Luzhkov that it began to be used as the explanation for all his successes. All over the country, executives as a special class of first-class managers were contrasted with politicians as second-class managers. Spin-doctors wishing to improve the public image of their governor, they would say: “He’s a good executive. Almost as good as Luzhkov!”

Medvedev-Sobyanin

Sergei Sobyanin’s appointment as Moscow mayor was not a surprise to Russian public.

In fact, Luzhkov did in the Moscow nineties what Putin did in Russia in the 00s. He built a power vertical. Primarily his own personal power. Any success had in Moscow, which can certainly be debated, had little to do with his economic policies and were much more the side-effect of the stability provided by this vertical (until it began to crumble). In the same way Luzhkov discovered, even earlier than Putin, the “miraculous economic effect” of a merger between the authorities and the criminal world. In difficult times he was able to rely on “authoritative businessmen”, and he didn’t forget to thank them afterwards. Luzhkov could be said to be Putin’s political teacher. The relationship between the “Luzhkov system” and the “Putin system” is like that between new and old versions of a computer programme. In these programmes the myth of Luzhkov as the “outstanding executive” plays the same role as the myth of Putin as the “tough guy”.

The myth was so hypnotic, that when the issue of finding a new Moscow mayor arose, no one doubted the type of candidate that was needed – an “executive”, of course! Someone as good as Luzhkov. This was the mould used to fashion the original image of Sergei Sobyanin. The problem was, however, that Luzhkov was not an executive at all.

Yury Luzhkov undoubtedly demonstrated a real talent for administration in his job as mayor. But his political talent was much more pronounced. Luzhkov was an outstanding populist politician, even a political intriguer, who had a keen sense of all the nuances of public opinion, and knew how to manipulate them. Luzhkov (like Putin, incidentally) was that rare type of leader who does not need to make an effort to raise the mood of the people. Leaders of this kind have a live, direct, non-verbalized connection with the people; they appeal to feelings rather than reason, and can control a crowd simply by changing the timbre of their voice.

"In the life of every Russian regime there is a mystical point of rejection. This is the moment when the externally insignificant, but in fact the most powerful, Russian political class (the intelligentsia) stops taking the authorities seriously."

Vladimir Pastukhov

Sergei Sobyanin, unlike Luzhkov, really has turned out to be an executive. He still seems to believe that he can gain the affection of Muscovites by tidying up the debris of Luzhkov’s new buildings and dealing with Moscow’s traffic jams. He is not involved in intrigues, and he has plunged himself into his role as an executive manager in the hope that this will solve all the political problems.

Unfortunately, he is unlikely to be able to avoid politics and it is the purely political challenges that present the greatest threat to him today. They are twofold in nature.

On the one hand, he must pass through the sieve of local and federal elections, ensuring victory for the party of power [United Russia], which will be very difficult. He has to be more of an “engineer of human souls” than a railway engineer or foreman.

On the other hand, apart from any elections, and regardless of what he wants himself, he will soon have to start playing a part in the big political game at federal level in one form or another. And he will have to do this from a position to which he is not accustomed. He can put it off, but it will be practically impossible to avoid. The capital is the kind of place where if the mayor doesn’t go into politics, then politics will come to the mayor.

This does not mean that Sobyanin will be a bad politician. Ostentatious rejection of politics is also a kind of politics. At least, as long as this rejection is not a dogmatic stance, but merely a guide to action. It is most important not to stick to this heresy for too long, but to realize at the right time that the position of mayor of the capital always, everywhere and first and foremost is political. If Sobyanin fails to realize this in time, it may cost him dearly. For, as he himself said in an interview, 80% of Muscovites use public transport, and so the problem of traffic jams is only of real concern for 20% of city residents, albeit the most active ones. Politics is something that concerns everyone.

Sobyanin, metro

From the start, Sergei Sobyanin named the quick development of the Moscow underground as being among his top priorities.

Paradoxically enough, it could be federal, rather than Moscow, problems that are the salvation of Sobyanin as a political figure. He may well end up getting bogged down in Moscow matters, because they have been so neglected that no “executive” in the foreseeable future will be able to raise them to a level that the people can see and appreciate. Not to mention the fact that nothing is more ephemeral than the gratitude of the people. In a few years’ time, it will probably be Luzhkov that the people remember with gratitude, because of the legacy he left to Sobyanin. If Moscow were not the capital, and if it lived in isolation from everything else going on in Russia, then Sobyanin would be another Alexander Lebed. He would make a bit of noise, then be dragged down into the political depths by the weight of regional problems. But Moscow is not Krasnoyarsk. Other winds blow here, and they may turn the sails of the new Moscow team in a completely different direction.

"Putin’s Russia passed the point of rejection somewhere around late 2009-early 2010. We will leave it to the materialists to calculate how long the present political system in Russia will continue to exist out of inertia. It is no longer of any importance for history."

Vladimir Pastukhov

Sobyanin is the Moscow mayor of the time when the power vertical collapsed. Not an enviable position: he can either soar up high or fall and break his neck and there have many examples of both in the past. At any rate, the Putin machine going out of control is, as Lenin would say, an objective, perceptible reality. In this machine, everything relied on the siloviki, but the siloviki went bad and turned against one another. The machine has no one else to rely on, as it has lost the intelligentsia for good (take the story of the anti Khodorkovsky letter, for example).

In the life of every Russian regime there is a mystical point of rejection. This is the moment when the externally insignificant, but in fact the most powerful, Russian political class (the intelligentsia) stops taking the authorities seriously. In the Soviet period, the point of rejection came at the end of the 1970s, when the intelligentsia became ideologically and psychologically alienated from the authorities. The spell was broken and they became an object of hatred and mockery. From that time, the regime was doomed and nothing could help it. It may have staggered on after this for a period determined by a series of external factors, but it had no prospects. 

Putin’s Russia passed the point of rejection somewhere around late 2009-early 2010. We will leave it to the materialists to calculate how long the present political system in Russia will continue to exist out of inertia. It is no longer of any importance for history.

In this situation, ensuring the succession of power in the period from 2012 to 2018 will be much more difficult than in 2008 and there will be no cast iron guarantee for whoever is elected in 2012 that he will remain in this position until the end of his term. The continuing uncertainty about “succession to the throne” against the background of the growing power entropy makes it probable that an alternative will be offered to the present “tandem” of Putin and Medvedev. It is hard to imagine that Sobyanin, however genuine his intentions not to interfere in big or small politics at present, will be able to avoid becoming involved in this process while he is mayor of Moscow.

"Sobyanin doesn’t look like a “rich kid” and, unlike most contemporary politicians, he’s a self-made man. In this sense, he is much closer to Yeltsin or Chernomyrdin than to Putin or Medvedev. In character he’s rather more like Khodorkovsky, but has yet to fall out of favour."

Vladimir PAstukhov

Sobyanin does not give the impression of someone who shies away from the battle for power. He’s not like the media parody of the “tough guy”. In a certain sense, he is a person who is not from “moneyed circles”. Power is clearly more important in his system of values than money or comfort. He is very close to the character of Yuri Polyakov’s perestroika-era novel 100 days till demob, who, if asked to choose between all the riches of the world and a small red [government] telephone with an official coat of arms on the dial, will always choose the telephone. At the end of the day, Sobyanin doesn’t look like a “rich kid” and, unlike most contemporary politicians, he’s a self-made man. In this sense, he is much closer to Yeltsin or Chernomyrdin than to Putin or Medvedev. In character he’s rather more like Khodorkovsky, but has yet to fall out of favour.

Sobyanin, city legislature

Sergei Sobyanin does not give the impression of someone who shies away from the battle for power.

In his situation that will not be difficult. As we know, in Russia it’s just one step from love to hatred (and sometimes vice versa). Sergei Sobyanin’s problem is that his appointment to the position came too late. He would need another 12 or 18 months to gain enough political weight before federal power begins to crumble. You might say that he has a very short runway, so he will have to take off at great speed.

Nothing speeds up political success in Russia like the battle with corruption and privileges. It is the most reliable of all known political accelerators. In any case, in the highly corrupt environment of Moscow, Sobyanin will have to give this top priority. It will be very difficult to separate Moscow matters from the concerns of the whole country. The interests of almost all the ruling clans of Russia are closely intertwined in the capital. A conflict with them, and a conflict between them during the redistribution of assets of the “Luzhkov family”, is practically unavoidable. It’s only a question of time.

Without aspiring to the role of Cassandra, I would suggest that nevertheless Sobyanin’s honeymoon with the federal authorities will soon come to an end. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, the all-powerful criminal and power clans (even those initially loyal to Sobyanin) will be greatly tempted to order him around, and Sobyanin doesn’t look like a person who can be easily pushed around. Secondly, in his battle with corruption, he will be forced to deal with the division of the spoils outside Moscow, because Moscow business is inseparable from business in Russia as a whole. Thirdly, he will have to manoeuvre constantly between the two centres of power in the tandem, which will not help to increase trust between Sobyanin and the prime minister, or between Sobyanin and the president. And in the end, overcoming the legacy of Luzhkov in Moscow falls into the same group of tasks as overcoming the legacy of Putin in Moscow.

It took Boris Yeltsin 23 months to advance from his appointment as secretary of the Moscow city committee of the Communist Party to a speech at the October plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party where he criticized his political benefactors. One wonders how long it will take Sergei Sobyanin.

Photos: The Moscow City Government web site: www.mos.ru

About the author

Vladimir Pastukhov is visiting fellow at St Anthony's College, Oxford and advisor to the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation 

Read On

Aide Who Assailed Gorbachev’s Pace Ousted In Moscow, by Philip Taubman, The New York Times, Nov. 12, 1987

Dmitri Medvedev, "Go Russia!" , official Kremlin website

The Truth About Putin and Medvedev, By Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 8 · May 15, 2008

Is Medvedev Obama's Gorbachev?, by Peter Baker, Foreign Policy, 14.04.2009

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Sobyanin

Sergey Sobyanin was born on June 21, 1958, in the village of Nyaksimvol, which now lies in the Khanty-Mansiisk region of Russia. Deputy Prime Minister of Russia since 2008, in September 2010 he was named one of the front runners to replace ousted Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.  

Sobyanin started work in the Chelyabinsk tube and pipe mill in 1975, and went on to graduate in 1980 from the Kostroma Technology Institute. He worked for the Komsomol in the early 1980s before returning to Khanty-Mansiisk in 1984 and holding various government and party jobs until 1990.

He served as head of the State Tax Inspectorate in Kogaly, Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Region from 1990 to 1991 and also served as first deputy head of that administration in the early 1990s.

From 1994 to 2000 he was speaker of the legislature of Khanty-Mansiisk  and a member of the Russian Federation Council, where he chaired the Committee for Constitutional Legislation, Courts and Law.

After a brief spell as presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District, Sobyanin served as governor of the Tyumen Region from 2001 to 2005. Sobyanin received over 50 percent of the vote to reach this post, and support of the heads of Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets was seen to be a key factor in his success.  During his time as governor Sobyanin tried to find a compromise between the Kremlin’s requirements to merge Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets within the Tyumen region and those who opposed this merger. The proposed union was eventually suspended. Sobyanin also earned a good reputation for reforming public services and education, doubling spending.

Having been reappointed by then-President Vladimir Putin in January 2005. In December of the same year he was appointed chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, replacing Dmitry Medvedev.

Some experts regard Sobyanin as a notably technical figure through which the Kremlin keeps in touch with the heads of regions and oil companies. At the same time other analysts assume that Sobyanin, being a skilled governor and functionary, could have become Putin's successor as president of the Russian Federation.

In December 2007, following Putin's nomination of Medvedev as his successor, Sobyanin headed Medvedev's pre-election staff. In March 2008 Medvedev was elected president. Following Medvedev's inauguration, on May 12, 2008 it was announced that Sobyanin has been appointed deputy prime minister and the government's chief of staff under Putin's second cabinet.

On October 15, Medvedev nominated Sobyanin to be the new Moscow mayor from a list of four candidates put forward by United Russia. 

Source: Russia Profile