In an interesting report published by Slon, Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky recently cast doubt on whether the “siloviki” (“men of force”—the current and past cadre of security and military elites) ought to be considered a single force. Of course he is right, and one of my long-time hobby horses has precisely been to pick apart where and how they can cohere and conversely where the fault lines and rivalries fragment them. Nonetheless, one of the tools of modern Kremlinology 2.0 is to look for particular sodalities, clans, communities or blocs which often cut across functional and sometimes even ideological boundaries, in the hope of trying to understand the building blocks of modern Russian elite politics.
One approach is to look at people who passed through particular locations of institutions—witness the “Peterburgers”—and treat them as such a “club” (like all clubs, members can join several, and even drift in and out of them). In this context, the Presidential Administration, which “is responsible for providing the President with administrative support and enabling him to carry out his duties as head of state”—a bland formulation for what is, in many ways, Putin’s shadow government, the Deep State’s executive.
Let’s consider the chiefs of the PA during the Putin era:
✪ Alexander Voloshin (1999-2003), who then moved into Yandex, Norilsk Nickel and generally doing well for himself
✪ Dmitry Medvedev (2003-5), yesterday’s sockpuppet president, today’s scapegoat prime minister, tomorrow’s dean of some law school maybe, but still not a bad resumé…
✪ Sergei Sobyanin (2005-8), now mayor of Moscow, and a potential future PM or even president
✪ Sergei Naryshkin (2005-11), now chair of the State Duma
✪ Vladislav Surkov (very briefly as acting head, 2011)
✪ Sergei Ivanov (2011-), another lean and hungry wannabe president, and probably also now the high cardinal of the siloviki, insofar as anyone could be considered that, given that the former holder of that shadowy office, Igor Sechin, is really now a hydrocarbons magnate instead.
But beyond that, there are many within the ranks of the deputy chiefs and presidential aides who have also become significant, even if only for a while. There are the trusted troubleshooters like Dmitry Kozak, Sergei Prikhodko (who replaced Surkov as Medvedev’s chief of staff) and Alexander Abramov. There are those who are now key economic-political “boyars” in Putin’s court, like Sechin and Igor Shuvalov. There are administrative and security bosses like Federal Anti-Narcotics Service chief Viktor Ivanov.
Of course, there are those who have not made much of themselves. Sergei Yastrzhembsky proved a pretty clumsy representative to the EU and is now off shooting film documentaries. And I have no idea what happened to Evgeny Lisov.
Can one make any generalizations about these people? That many went on to higher things is hardly that surprising. Kremlin politics are in many ways court politics, and access to the tsar is often a great way to rise. Indeed, there is a chicken-and-egg issue here. Do high-fliers spend time in the PA because they are men on the rise (and they almost all are men, needless to say), the kind of people who anyway form alliances and continue to be promoted? Or does being an administrativnik (yes, I just made that up) actually have an impact on promotion prospects or attitudes all its own?
First of all, these people tend not to be each other’s clients; they do not form a single faction (which would have leaders and led) so much as stand outside the main blocs or else seek to establish their own. Kozak seems to have a decent relationship with Medvedev but is not his client (and wasn’t even during his presidency), for example, and Viktor Ivanov is an obvious silovik, but his relationship with his namesake Sergei or even Sechin—both of whom are clearly more powerful within the Deep State—is more complex than follower or even just ally.
Instead, their key power tends to be their relationship with Putin. This may be obvious, but it is striking that if they have any institutional or economic powerbase (consider Sechin and Voloshin), this tends to be acquired during or after their time in the PA. In other words, being in the PA is a stepping stone to higher things, not a reflection of existing political weight.
As such, they tend to be “managers” rather than “shareholders”—administrators instead of “owners” of key economic sectors—even though figures such as Sechin have clearly moved into the latter camp. They cannot be characterized as “liberals” or “conservatives” but rather do believe, not surprisingly, in strong state power. This is one of the few things on which, say, Medvedev, Surkov and the Ivanovs could agree.
Finally, take Surkov out of the equation—and he doesn’t really belong there anyway, given that he was only very briefly there as a stand-in—and allow for Sergei Ivanov’s naked ambition and thus his regular sparring with Medvedev, and there is also strikingly little direct political conflict between this cohort. They are often rivals, of course, and may disagree on political, factional and personal grounds, but the fiercer rivalries appear to take place outside this circle. In part this is probably a product of the centrality of Putin’s favor: the boss doesn’t want to have to keep stepping in to resolve spats. However, it may also speak to the extent to which the administrativniki, like the KGB in the late Soviet era, also have perhaps the best big picture sense of modern Russia and the potential fragilities of the system. Better to do pretty well within the status quo than risk everything in the name of a potentially greater payout.
This necessarily makes them conservatives not in the sense of their social policies or the like but, like the boss, inclined to avoid radical measures and bolder steps. (Consider the disappointment that was the Medvedev presidency, which cannot all be blamed on political and structural constraints on him.) Yes, I am sure that the current drift in Russian politics to a large extent reflects Putin’s uncertainties and his risk-averse tendencies, but this may well be compounded by the administrativniki.