Spy vs. Spy

If you want to understand what is happening among the political elite in Russia and why Putin making the moves he’s making, read Mark Ames’ “The Kremlin’s Clan Warfare: The Putin Era Ends“. Here is an excerpt:

What is happening?

I’ll repeat: It’s the End of the Putin Era as we know it. The struggle is on.

Here is how I see the current situation, from reading the various Russian reports and talking to people.

Putin had hoped or lulled himself into believing that he’d really set up the stable regime everyone thought Russia had become. The alleged stability had a kind of narcotic effect, convincing Putin’s supporters that he’d done good, and his detractors that he’d gone Fascist or neo-Soviet. In fact, these two filters have led all of us to completely misunderstand what is really happening in Russia, and how potentially unstable the political power is, including Putin’s own position.

There has been factional infighting all along, between various silovik clans, oligarch clans, and, to a lesser degree, Western interests. The infighting has been kept under control until recently by Putin’s undisputed power, which he wielded to try to ensure some measure of balance. However, just as the Banker’s War of 1997 showed, competing clans are never happy with their share of the “balance.” As this autumn election season loomed, the two silovik clans’ internecine war started breaking out, Putin, who may have wanted to step down from power and retire from glory, understood that things were potentially slipping out of his control as the clans battled for position and worked to weaken the other. Given Russian history, and given the high scary-factor of the two silovik clans, Putin should have every reason to worry about how badly he’s going to sleep once he leaves the Kremlin. If power passed to one or the other clan, then London or Siberia or the untraceable-poison intensive care ward are all serious possibilities. The people poised to take power after Putin are pretty much guaranteed to make a lot of his detractors miss him.

It seems to me that Putin’s recent moves–appointing Zubkov, setting up the new Investigative Committee, announcing his plan to head up the United Russia ticket, appointing his own man to run the Transneft pipelines (remember, it was over pipelines that Khodorkovsky and Putin went to war)–are all designed to ensure his power. It’s hard to tell to what degree he is controlling the takedown of the Cherkesov clan or the Patrushev-Sechin clan, or if he even can control their battle. The fact that the two sides have taken their war to the media suggests that they’re less afraid of upsetting their master than they used to be.

In short, Putin is already weakened. That’s why he’s scrambling to strengthen his position and weaken the other clans. Every move he makes from here on out is fraught with danger. If he runs for parliament, appoints his man Zubkov as president, and then becomes the prime minister of a new parliamentary republic–basically following the playbook of Khodorkovsky’s plan to take power–then he’ll subject himself to the uncertainty of whethor or not the new president will really hand over power to Prime Minister Putin. There could be a long tug-of-war and new factions will very likely emerge. He might get some of the power, but not all of it. Jealousies, greed, ambition, and the general mess of transition all mean that Putin could find himself locked in a serious and dangerous battle, if he already isn’t in it.

His other option is the Kazakhstan Scenario. This year, Kazakhstan’s dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev passed laws allowing him to remain in office for life, quashed what little remains of the opposition, and then held elections which turned his parliament into a single-party rubber-stamp committee. He managed this all with the West’s collusion: when Nazarbayev announced legislation making him president for life this past May, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called it “a step in the right direction,” leading to outrage among Kazakhstan’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement. When the rigged elections this summer gave him a one-party parliament, the OSCE hailed it as “welcome progress.” Kazakhstan has for the past couple of years been the darling of Dick Cheney and the neocons.

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