The Zero Sum Game

I often tell my students that Russian politics is a zero sum game.  You’re either in or you’re out.  One’s political patronage begins and ends with one’s institutional authority. Without the ability to dole out favors, and more importantly protect your clients, you’re nothing in the world of Russian politics.  Zip, ziltch, nada, nichego.

There’s no meaningful tradition of a Russian elder statesmen.  There is no custom of ex-politicians having a visibly influential hand in politics.  There are no Bill Clintons and no Henry Kissingers.  And certainly no Richard Nixons.  Once a powerful Russian politician retires, or what happens more often, is forced out, the sun sets on their power. It’s an old Russian practice dating back to Muscovy when Grand Princes had to sideline rival boyar clans, placate them through compromise, or for those who didn’t fall into line, simply exile or have them slaughtered.  Remember when Peter the Great threw his half-sister Sophia into a convent and exiled her co-conspirator Vasily Golitsyn to the north.  Or have the conspirators in the Tsykler plot executed over the exhumed corpse of Ivan Miroslavsky,  the head of his stepmother Maria’s clan, and had their blood “sprinkled on the dead carcass which in some places was rotten and consumed.”  Peter was good with the symbolism.  And punishment was often collective.  As the 1649 Law Code stated: “If someone commits treason, and after him survive a father, or mother, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member of his clan in the Muscovite state…conduct a rigorous investigation…If it is established conclusively that they knew about the treason of that traitor, punish them with death.” Interestingly, the same principle was applied during Stalin’s terror.

In the Soviet period, the way to get rid of a rival was to physically annihilate him.  Remember Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev.  Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 changed the calculus. Rivals were no longer physically annihilated, only politically, and were allowed to live out their lives quietly.  Remember Vlacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev.  Old Molotov spent his final years in the main reading room of the Lenin Library working on his memoirs and appealing the Politburo to get his Party card back.

This zero sum game appears to have ramped up since the collapse of communism.  Some even say that the Russian elite has reverted back to its feudal past and readopted the “Muscovite model” of rule.  Whether Russia continues to be a feudal society is a matter of debate.  It can’t be denied, however, that Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s succession have maintained a stable oligarchy in power not seen since the 1930s.  Putin’s only revision to post-communist “feudalism” is the notion of the Tandem, which thus far has maintained political stability between liberal and conservative elite factions.  Still, it had to purge the major political players from the 1990s from the halls of state power to get to this point.  The current oligarchy’s rivals are either dead, driven into exile, in prison, blackballed and besmirched, or, if they’re lucky, left to peacefully live in political obscurity, as long as they keep to themselves.  It’s not difficult for those in power to maintain this tradition.  Since many Russian power brokers gained and maintained their power through nefarious means, once they lose their position, they immediately become vulnerable.  It’s not just because they no longer have the privilege of the office to hide behind.  It’s also because the loss of position means being deprived of the clients who gave a patron his power in the first place.  Given this, it is no surprise that investigations of theft, corruption and fraud emerge after a broker’s fall.  It is because of this naked vulnerability that I believe Putin will be around for a long time. Not on account of his love for power per se, but because he doesn’t like prison or exile.

Still, why does the zero sum politics remain?  My theory has to do with elite class consciousness, particularly in the old Marxist adage about a class in and for itself.  Russia’s elite is a class in itself, but it has yet to become a class for itself.  Meaning, the Russian ruling elite has yet to realize that it doesn’t have to cannibalize itself to maintain power.  All it has to do is recognize its corporate class interests and see their rivals as essentially all part of the same gang.  There can still be factions and low level conflicts, but these never seek to completely destroy a rival.

There is no better recent example of this zero sum game than ex-Moscow mayor and former major political player, Yuri Luzhkov.  Luzhkov was the last of the Mandarins from the 1990s.  It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did.  But eventually he did fall, and what initially appeared as soft landing has now turned into a full speed head-on into the pavement.  At first, Luzhkov didn’t understand the rules of the game, which is surprising since he’s been at it so long.  A mere week after his firing, like so many before him, Luzhkov declared himself a “democrat” and vowed to continue in politics.  That venture was short-lived because at the same time the ex-mayor was manufacturing his democratic credentials, he was also desperately trying to find an EU country willing to give him residency. Their response: Yuri go screw yourself.

The charges of mass theft, particularly on the part of his construction mogul wife, Elena Baturnia, are coming to fruition.  Two weeks ago, a Moscow city audit accused Luzhkov of embezzling almost $8 billion during his tenure as mayor.  The Ministry of Interior has been investigating his wife for embezzling $440 million through her company Inteko (my guess is that they’ve been keeping documents on them for a long time).

Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost as masked Interior Robocops raided Baturnia’s company.   The Moscow News describes the tangled web of theft as follows:

The prosecutor’s eye is homing in on a deal in 2009, when Bank of Moscow lent 12.76 billion roubles to Premier Estate. The company was created three months before the deal, Interfax reported.

The little known company used the funds to buy a 58 hectare plot of land from Inteko for 13 billion roubles, although its charter capital was just 10,000.

The transaction took place three weeks after Moscow City Duma approved a 14.99 billion rouble transfer from city coffers to Bank Moskvy, Kommersant reported.

By selling the land, as well as some shares in Sperbank, Rosneft and Gazprom, Baturina reaped 27 billion roubles. Of this, 18 billion went to pay off debts, to Gazprombank and other creditors.

But it wasn’t just the company that benefited. “The money, received as a loan from Bank of Moscow and worth around 13 billion roubles, was transferred into the personal account of Elena Baturina,” the British Home Office’s press service told Kommersant.

Baturina’s brother says that she’s already fled the country. You’re damn right she did.  Apparently, the whole Luzhkov family is stewing in Britain. No matter, the Russian authorities have no problem trying fallen oligarchs in absentia.

Others of his clan are going down too.  Lukhkov’s metro boss, Dmitry Gayev, will soon find himself charged with embezzling $3.8 million. is reporting that his former head of sport has been sacked by Sobyanin.  And Luzhkov’s vice mayor, Vladimir Resin, is rumored to resign in the coming days.  Whether they will be investigated too remains to be seen.

The purge of Luzhkov’s people is heating up.  And with that the survivors in the zero sum game begin another trot around the board.

Image: RIA Novosti