A Quarter of a Million in 2016?

WordprIMG_0204ess have delivered their usual summary of a year in statistics. I’m not going to post the whole thing, but I was delighted and honoured to read that I had some 240,000 views across the year, with one day — 24th November — getting almost 11,000 views. Now, sadly much of this is because of the mayhem, murder and misery attached to Russia in 2015, given the nature of my beat, so pleasure must be balanced with a little reflective sadness. Still, I would like to say thank you to all those who do subscribe or just stop by, and especially express my pleasure that while the USA and the UK account for the most hits, Russia comes third. I hope you find this useful and even sometimes entertaining, and now have a target to exceed for 2016. S novym godom! 

Wikistrat 2016 Prediction: Putin forced to choose between Oligarchs and Public

WIKISTRAT PREDICTIONS FOR 2016 (RUSSIA)

As part of Wikistrat’s Predictions for 2016 report, I contributed a potentially upbeat one, reproduced here with permission, that speculated about the way the likely opening pressures between the interests of the public and the kleptocratic oligarchs of Russia (or maybe the “three Russias” I write about here) may force Putin to choose between them. It is possible — and this may be wishful thinking — that he would choose some form of economic reform and limited anti-corruption campaign. Of course, he could just as easily decide to go full late-Brezhnev and cushion the elite regardless of the impact on the public and state legitimacy, in which case he is truly dooming his state-building project.

More security reshuffles: new head of Federal Protection Service ready?

fso_emblemNews today that Colonel Oleg Kliment’ev, head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP) has stepped down, although he’s rumoured to be making a move up, to become first deputy head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), the agency of which the SBP is a part. If so, this could signal that FSO chief General Evgeny Murov will finally be taking his long-happening-never-quite-done retirement. The 70-year-old Murov, incidentally the longest serving of all Russia’s security chiefs, has long apparently been wanting to step down, but this has been delayed by the lack of a suitable successor — his deputy, Aleksei Mironov, was mooted as the likely new chief, but there were some doubts as to whether he was enough of a heavyweight — and also his quietly important role as the de facto answer to the age-old question of “who watches the watchers.” Any successor would have the have the strength of will and political authority to tangle with the FSB, etc. After all, the FSO does more than just guard the Kremlin and VIPs, but has filled a variety of unusual niches in the Putin system, and that this is still happening was demonstrated by the recent news that it takes part in a taskforce identifying areas where there is a greater risk of public disorder and throws money at local regeneration projects to head this off.

SBP veteran Dmitri Kochnev is being reported as Kliment’ev’s replacement, although this has not been formally confirmed.

Of course, Kliment’ev’s elevation would also reflect a further colonisation of the security elite by the SBP considering that Kliment’ev’s predecessor, Zolotov, is now first deputy interior minister. Perhaps not surprising if in troubled times Putin wants the people he knows best personally at key positions.

Thanks to Ekaterina Shulmann and Dainis Bushmanis for separately bringing this news to my attention.

Will 2016 See The Three Russias Diverging?

This is a reprint, with permission, of my Stolypin column from Intellinews Business New Europe: the original was published on 16 November 2015. I have made one change as in hindsight I wished I had used ‘Normal Russia’ instead of ‘Real Russia’ for the essentially working substructure. On what I call ‘fantasy fatigue,’ Andrew Wilson has drawn an entertaining football analogy with his ‘Mourinho Effect.’

BogatyrsThere have been many attempts to understand Russia by subdividing it. Is it a feudal Russia of rulers and ruled, or the four Russias posited by scholar Natalya Zubarevich, divided geographically and socio-economically? My own sense is that alongside such formulations, we also need to see the country and society divided into three, and the competition between them – one as much philosophical as practical – is likely to become all the sharper in 2016, defining Russia’s future trajectory, and the eventual post-Putin order.

The Three Russias

However little attention it may get in foreign coverage, Russia has a working, rational state. This is not some neo-fascist imperialism, nor an out-of-control kleptocracy where everything is plundered and funnelled into foreign bank accounts. There are inefficiencies, there is petty corruption – apparently on the rise again, as a result of officials’ shrinking real incomes – but in the main, the country works. Roads are paved, refuse is collected, teachers teach and police officers police. Most people essentially want to do their jobs, live – that perennial Russian dream and mantra – a “normal” life.

However, above Normal Russia squats the smaller, but vastly richer Kleptocratic Russia. This ugly parasite is much of the time happy to let its host do its thing, but has ultimate authority over the structures of state, routines of life and workings of justice, when it chooses to exert it. This is the realm of the embezzling senior officials, the pampered sons and daughters of the mighty, the businesspeople who depend as much on sweetheart deals and covert cartels as any real acumen.

Yet this country cannot simply be dismissed as a kleptocracy, because at the very top of the stepped ziggurat of national power lies the smallest and, perhaps, most dangerous and pernicious incarnation: Ideological Russia. It is hard to doubt that, whatever his motivations during his earlier presidencies, Vladimir Putin is driven now not by personal economic interest but an ideological programme, a vision of a nation restored to its due place in history and the world (and, by extension, a vision of his appropriate legacy). He has surrounded himself with a small coterie of like-minded cohorts – or at least figures willing and able to play that role – and they are ultimately in charge.

The Kleptocrats get to reach in to Normal Russia when they choose, to divert a procurement contract here, dictate a court decision there, but the Ideologists in turn have the final say. Ever since Crimea, the primary thrust of national policy has been towards confrontational geopolitics which have hit at the heart of the kleptocrats’ interests, grinding an already-suffering economy downwards and limiting their scope to move themselves and their assets at will. Beyond that, whereas in the past these two blocs collaborated smoothly, there are now indications that the Ideologues see some of the Kleptocrats and their parasitic habits as a growing problem in an age when dwindling resources need to be focused more directly on the ideological project. Witness, presumably, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin’s dismissal and the increasing evidence of a not-as-bogus-as-usual anti-corruption campaign on the way.

Of course, no such simple pattern can be exact and accurate. There are individuals high up in the system, from example, from cabinet ministers to Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina, whose technocratic instincts seem closest to those of Normal Russia. Likewise, even Ideologists still seem happy to help their children find comfortable and highly lucrative positions, from whence to steal with savage abandon. However, as a broad model for trying to understand the disparate and often contradictory forces working to shape Russia’s future, this seems to have some value.

Widening gaps in 2016

Although it is probably wishful thinking to expect dramatic and positive outcomes over the course of the coming year, for a variety of reasons 2016 is likely to see the relationships between the three Russias become increasingly tense, laying the groundwork for change to come.

On 18 September, elections will be held for the Duma, the lower house, which will in many ways also be a referendum on the regime. There is no question of United Russia (and its affiliated pseudo-parties) losing their control over the chamber, both because of the propaganda campaign likely to precede the vote and also, where necessary, judicial rigging of the process and the count. We can, for example, expect to see the more vocal and effective Kremlin critics systematically excluded, vilified and pressurised. How the vote will count, though, is that it forces the state to mobilise the masses – and the extent to which it has to struggle to produce the results decreed by the Kremlin will provide insiders with an index of true popular discontent.

After all, Putin’s sky-high personal ratings tell us little about the public mood. Arguably, the growing rash of local labour and social protests, from truckers blocking roads to demonstrations against rising utilities prices, are a better measure, as inflation, wage pressures and the effects of social spending cuts all come to bite.

The Ideologists may be tempted to crank up their propaganda about a Russia isolated and embattled, but there is a real risk of ‘fantasy fatigue’ if this is just a matter of intemperate words and invented threats. On the other hand, manufacturing or introducing Russia into crises abroad to give substance to the hype, from a renewed Ukraine campaign to picking fights over the Arctic sea lanes, would not only deplete dwindling resources but likely only deepen its economic and diplomatic isolation.

This is unlikely to please the Kleptocrats, squeezed between economic stagnation, popular dissatisfaction and Kremlin adventurism. However, at present political power trumps all in Russia: the rich are not so much wealthy in their own right so much as the temporary stewards of those assets until the day comes when the Kremlin seeks to reassign them. To this end, they have a perverse incentive to want to see genuine rule of law and secure property rights come to Russia, and an end to its geopolitical struggle with the West.

An archetypal bankrobber wants the police force to be inefficient and corrupt – until he is rich enough to own banks, at which point he wants the state to protect his ill-gotten gains. So too, a kleptocratic generation of Russian oligarchs, minigarchs and boyar-bureaucrats who have done well thanks to Putin may well come to feel that their interests have come to diverge from his.

And what about the poor Russian people, the perennially disenfranchised? There seems little prospect of their rising against the regime, literally or metaphorically (rising, after all, for what?). Instead, theirs are the weapons of the weak: refusing to conform, turning to the underground economy, passively resisting to behave as their masters would want. This does not go unnoticed, and will be visible – at least to those who see the real, uncooked books – in indices from labour unrest and productivity to suicide rates and support for local civic initiatives.

In itself, this will not force change on the elite. However, it may scare the Kleptocrats and technocrats. If the economy worsens, if the elections prove tougher to massage, and if the Kremlin looks increasingly willing to sacrifice their interests in the name of an ideological project, at some point they will begin to look for ways to protect them.

And here’s the inevitable prediction buried in all these “year ahead” articles. It may well not come in 2016, but whenever Putin is replaced or succeeded, it will not be with another Ideologist, but with a Kleptocrat. The interests of the elite will take precedence over the masses’ but also over Russian geopolitical grandeur, and this new regime will eagerly seek to mend bridges with the West.

As a generation of ruthless exploiters gives way to their more pampered and less sharp-toothed children, the pressure to create reliable protections for property rights (however that property may have been acquired in the first place) will only grow. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians and their technocrat fellow-travellers in the elite will be looking for change, and thus the possibility – no more – is that a Kleptocratic presidency may in turn give way, some day, sometime, to a generation finally eager to make real the promises of 1991, of building genuine, working political and economic democracy. Perhaps.

Personnel Turnover in Russian Interior Ministry Hints at Responses to Growing Tide of Local Discontent

dog and omon

The Watchdogs are Ready

Mixed in with a collection of local law enforcement officers dismissed in Presidential Decree No. 616 of 11 December 2015, “On the Dismissal of and Appointment to Certain Federal Government Agencies,” is one ministerial change that might reflect current concerns. There are also signs of turnover within the regional MVD Interior Troops commands that could – and all one can do is speculate – likewise point to a desire to make sure the internal security forces are in good shape and ready for action.

The full list of scalps is:

  • Col. Elena Alekseeva, assistant to the Interior Minister and press spokesperson
  • General Artur Akhmetkhanov, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of North Ossetia
  • Sergei Gubarev, police chief of Vladimir region
  • General Viktor Kiryanov, Deputy Interior Minister.
  • Major General Alexei Kozhevin, deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate to Ensure the Protection of Public Order and Liaison with Regional Executive Bodies in the Regions
  • Major General of Justice Tatyana Sergeeva, head of the Investigation Committee’s Investigation Directorate for the Tula region
  • Major General Igor Tolstonosov, head of head of the Federal Anti-Narcotics Service in the Tomsk region
  • General Viktor Shalygin, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service for the Republic of Bashkortostan
  • Two other officers are simply removed from their positions: Maj. Gen, Andrei Botsman, deputy head of the Operational Directorate of the MVD Interior Troops and Col. Gen. Aleksandr L’vov, head of the MVD Interior Troops Central Directorate.

Kiryanov is the interesting one. Not only is he the most senior, but he was also in charge of the MVD’s Road Safety Directorate, as a career GAI traffic cop. He is coming up for his 63rd birthday, so while retirement is entirely feasible, it’s hardly the obvious age to go. I’d not heard of any health issues, either. In any case, most of these are outright dismissals, not retirements (Alekseeva, for example, may be going because of her unprofessional social media coverage of the recent killing of police in St Petersburg).

I wonder if his departure has anything to do with the fact that the MVD – and by extension Kiryanov – had a role in putting forward the now-infamous highway heavy lorry tariffs that have triggered the current truckers’ protests.

Finally, there were nine new appointments: three local prosecutors and fully six major generals, all deputy and first deputy commander positions within the regional MVD Interior Troops Commands (Eastern, Urals, North Caucasus and three in the Volga VVO – probably coincidentally, the Volga region is one of the hotbeds of the trucker protests).

Without wanting to make too much of this – this is not a sign of some imminent crack-down or the like – this does indicate the extent to which the Kremlin is paying renewed attention to its public order and internal security forces, forces which incidentally have been protected from the scale of budget cuts levied on the MVD as a whole. There clearly is a growing nervousness or at least cautious preparation on the part of the regime.

November 2015 Publications Round-Up

Here’s the latest update on my various publications, covering November 2015.

‘The Baltic Intelligence war: hotting up, and back to the Cold War,’ in Andris Spruds (ed), Riga Conference Papers 2015 (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2015)

ISIS, or Isn’t It a Threat to Russia?’Russia! magazine, 2 November

What Could Possibly Go Wrong in Russia’s Syrian Gambit?‘, Moscow Times, 5 November

One Economic Sector Booming in Russia: Corruption,’ English-language version of report for Radio Svoboda, published by Henry Jackson Society, 10 November

STOLYPIN: Will 2016 see the three Russias diverging?,’ Business New Europe, 16 November

Moscow faces terror threat it can handle‘, Moscow Times, 19 November

A Russia expert explains how Putin will likely respond to his downed plane‘, interview with Vox, 24 November

Russia’s Intervention in Syria can only Slow Down Assad’s Defeat,’ interview with Visegrad Insight, 25 November

Why did it take Turkey just 17 seconds to shoot down Russian jet?’, Guardian – New East Network, 26 November

Turkey ‘Ambushed’ Russian Su-24 to Protect Its ‘Proxies’ in Syria‘, interview with Sputnik, 26 November

Three Putins Leave Us All Guessing,’ Russia! magazine, 30 November

Some you win, some you lose: Russia’s foreign policy in 2015‘, interview with Russia Direct, 30 November

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,534 other followers

%d bloggers like this: