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The war between the president’s men

The Russian regime may present a united front to the world, but behind the scenes the cracks are beginning to show. In the week when Putin fired a senior government member, Dmitry Travin looks at the people and the issues that divide them.

On 6 November Vladimir Putin abruptly dismissed Russia’s Minister of Defence, and one of his own political appointees, Anatoly Serdyukov. He was immediately replaced by Moscow regional governor Sergey Shoigu, but given that Shoigu was only recently appointed governor, it seems unlikely that this was part of a presidential plan. It points instead to a sudden crisis in the Kremlin. 

Serdyukov’s fall is ostensibly linked to a corruption scandal in the Defence Ministry, but his nemesis was most probably his own father-in-law Viktor Zubkov, a former deputy prime minister and current chairman of the state-owned gas giant Gazprom. And behind Zubkov is Putin’s close friend Igor Sechin, CEO of oil company Rosneft, a man of enormous influence with Russia’s law enforcement agencies.

'Serdyukov’s story is one of many described by the phrase: ‘war between the Kremlin’s towers’: the fact that the apparently united front that is the country’s government is in fact mired in internal conflict.'

Serdyukov’s career was built on his marriage to Zubkov’s daughter, but the couple’s relationship has now broken down and there has evidently been talk of divorce, which has rather spoilt Zubkov and Sechin’s relations with their protégé. Serdyukov also managed to antagonise many important generals, who claim that the reforms he was carrying out were detrimental to Russia’s army.

Serdyukov’s story is one of many in Russian political life that are described by the phrase: ‘war between the Kremlin’s towers’. What it means is that the apparently united front that is the country’s government is in fact mired in internal conflict. Vladimir Putin’s close political associates are at loggerheads with one another, fighting for influence over the president and control of resources (financial, natural, information), and in some cases for the achievement of their political aims. Official Kremlin sources present the same closed ranks as Putin’s team and never talk about these internal divisions, but in fact the situation at the top is becoming ever more problematic. Putin’s personal authority, and the immense power which he has concentrated in his own hands, have until now made it possible to suppress these conflicts, or at least keep a lid on them, but should the president falter for a moment, it will all blow up in an instant.

One can indeed say that the problem of internal conflict within the Putin regime is at a new high. If in the past it was a question of the odd ‘dissident’ who could easily be got rid of, we now see a situation where politicians in open disagreement with one another remain in their jobs and wage a cold war among themselves.

The three major clashes of the past involved the economist Andrey Illarionov, the FSB general Viktor Cherkessov and Moscow’s former mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Illarionov was an advisor to Putin, but his liberal views brought him into conflict with Russia’s whole governmental system, based as it is on state corruption, and he therefore turned into a strong opponent of the present regime. Cherkessov, whose ideas were more left than liberal, was also opposed to the high level of corruption in the regime, and was soon dismissed. Luzhkov, on the other hand, is the man considered by many commentators to have been responsible for the growth in corruption in the capital, and this was possibly the reason why he was eventually fired by then president Dmitry Medvedev.

'In the past it was a question of the odd ‘dissident’ who could easily be got rid of, but now politicians in open disagreement with one another remain in their jobs and wage a cold war among themselves.'

The causes of conflict

Today’s conflicts are totally different. The first, and perhaps most crucial at this stage in Putin’s rule, is between the Kremlin’s top political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin, who holds the post of First Deputy Head of the presidential administration, and deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, who until recently was Putin’s right hand man in Internal Affairs. Volodin’s position is more hard-line than Surkov’s. He relies less on political manoeuvring, and more on direct suppression of the opposition, to the extent of initiating criminal charges against its leaders, including Aleksey Navalny and Sergey Udaltsov. 

Putin could probably reproach Surkov with the fact that his ingenious strategies of the past just didn’t work. ‘A Just Russia’, for example, the party which Surkov was involved in setting up, was designed to be a loyal ally of the Kremlin, but by the time of the presidential election in March 2012 it had spoken out strongly against Putin. Surkov has also more recently been seen as a close ally of Medvedev, which will hardly have put him in the current president’s good books.

In other words, much of the political instability of 2011-2012 can be laid at Surkov’s door. He still, however, occupies a senior position. Putin can’t be certain that Volodin’s heavy- handed policy will be successful, especially if Russia hits a serious economic crisis. So Surkov could still be useful in a political U-turn, if Putin has to replace the current brutal crackdown on all malcontents and protesters with something a little more nuanced.

The second major conflict concerns the current regime’s economic policy, and its main protagonists are Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin. Medvedev would like to initiate a steep increase in government expenditure, regardless of the possible consequences of a fall in oil prices, on which Russia’s GDP directly depends. It was disagreement over this policy that made Kudrin resign a year or so ago. His further career has however been very different from that of Illarionov, who split with Putin for a similar reason.

'Putin, on the one hand, can’t avoid raising government spending if he wants to stay popular with the public. On the other, he recognises the limits on spending and the high risks of oil dependency. So he needs to walk a tightrope between Medvedev and Kudrin’s policies.' 

Kudrin still opposes Medvedev’s policy, but refrains from any direct opposition to Putin, and the president continues to see him as his friend and part of his team. Indeed it was Kudrin who made Putin insist on the inclusion in the government’s budget plans of provision for a reserve fund, to be fed by some of the profits from the high oil prices.

Many commentators regard Kudrin himself as a kind of ‘strategic reserve’ for Putin, should an economic crisis loom. In an emergency, the government led by Medvedev (who many consider a weak leader), could be made to resign, and responsibility for solving the crisis handed over to Kudrin, who has the reputation of being one of the country’s best economic brains and one of the world’s best Finance Ministers of the last decade. 

Putin’s ambiguous position can be explained by the fact that, on the one hand, he can’t avoid raising government spending if he wants to stay popular with the public. On the other, he recognises the limits on outgoings from the public purse and the high risks connected with oil dependency. So the president needs to walk a tightrope between Medvedev and Kudrin’s policies.

Oil, gas and international money

The third important conflict has recently been brewing between Medvedev and Igor Sechin, who is not only CEO of Rosneft but also Chair of the board of directors of Rosneftegaz, the holding company for the state's 75.2% stake in Rosneft and 10.7% stake in Gazprom, and who is seen as one of Putin’s closest allies. Medvedev decided to use Rosneftegaz dividends to help carry out his budget obligations, but Sechin had completely different plans for this money. He is in the process of expanding his oil empire, with the aim of turning Rosneft into one of the world’s largest energy companies. Rosneft has recently announced the conclusion of a deal with BP (British Petroleum) to buy up its 50% share in the oil company TNK-BP, and so Sechin is keen to maximise his financial resources.

The problem of the Rosneftegaz dividends will further complicate the already tricky relationship between Medvedev and Sechin, although it must also be said that Sechin has for some time been on equally difficult terms with Kudrin. So the three way relationship of these senior politicians is turning ever more messy. 

'While Putin’s influence is still strong, he can suppress or conceal the internal wars between the elites around him. But should his authority slip, these top level conflicts could threaten the very existence of Russia’s current regime.'  

A fourth conflict concerns Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and the head of Russia’s  Investigative Committee (IC), Aleksandr Bastrykin. Two years ago the IC became independent from the Prosecutor General’s Office, a development which Chaika was furious about, since it drastically reduced his power. And he would naturally like the change to be reversed.   

Add to these major issues a number of minor ones, and you realise that there are very few senior government figures who are not involved in one conflict or another. There has never been a situation of this kind since Putin came to power in 2000. While the president’s influence is still strong, he can manage to suppress or conceal the internal wars between the elites around him. But should his authority slip, these top level conflicts could threaten the very existence of Russia’s current political regime. 

About the author

Dmitry Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies.


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