To say the very least, Russia has entered a period of interesting politics. Governors are being fired, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains a thorn in Putin’s side in the run up to the presidential election in March. What to make of all of it? Bear Market Brief spoke with Tatiana Stanovaya, director of the analytical department of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. She is a specialist on Kremlin politics and a regular contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center and to Russian outlets including Republic or Politkom.ru.
Interview conducted by Fabrice Deprez. It has been edited for length and clarity.
We wanted to jump right in and start with Vladimir Putin. Just a few days ago, he again declared that he had not decided yet whether or not he will be a candidate in the presidential election… why do you think he does that?
In all his years in power, Vladimir Putin has always acted this way: the most important political decisions are announced at the last moment. That’s not only the case for presidential elections, but for any significant political decisions, like the appointment of high-ranking officials. For example, in 2007, Dmitri Medvedev announced that he would be Putin’s successor only in December, three months before the election. And no one knew it would be him.
This is because Putin always fears that his decisions could be hampered by some external factors and, for him, the later he announces it, the more control he has.
This time however, the situation is different. We expect that Putin will declare his candidacy in December, but it could be earlier. That’s because a new team focused on internal politics recently arrived in the presidential administration and for them, it’s more comfortable to start working [on the presidential election] as early as possible. So Putin might say he’s running in October or November, but the official candidacy will be announced in December.
A difference with all previous campaigns is that Putin is not going to “elect himself” but rather, he is going to be elected by his team. It’s an interesting difference, which is due to the fact that Putin is gradually removing himself from domestic politics. He isn’t interested in dealing with elections, in dealing with anything that, in his eyes, distracts him from real work. So, he delegates this job to his administration which, of course, would like to start the campaign, at least in an informal way, early.
How do you explain this loss of interest in internal politics?
Since 2014, Putin has been dealing mostly with foreign policy: the situation in Crimea, sanctions, oil prices, Donbass, Syria… this all lead to Putin practically ceasing to handle domestic and economic matters. If we remember, in 2006 and 2007, Putin was basically personally managing Gazprom. Gas conflicts, gas relations with Europe… Putin was involved in all the details.
That’s not the case anymore. He’s not interested in this, in dealing with the budget, with social issues, with inflation… He’s doing geopolitics, and this boring routine he passed on to his circle, to the people he’s been surrounding himself with since his first years as president.
I think that, today, Putin believes that his next mandate will be his last. And I think that he has told this to his close circle. There are lots of signals and rumours from the Kremlin, in the press, that Putin has said he will leave in 2024. But there are lots of doubts about whether or not he will still hold this position in two or three years. What he thinks now is one thing, but in six years… six years is a long time. The situation could be completely different by then.
What do you think a post-Putin Russia could look like? You’ve mentioned a theory about Putin creating a new position, above the presidency but more symbolic, something akin to the “Minister Mentor” in Singapore… do you still think that’s a possibility?
I think that, right now, several scenarios are being discussed. All these scenarios are linked to a constitutional reform that is likely to go through in the coming years. For example, the creation of a “gossovet,” a State Council.
And yes, indeed, there is also a scenario which would see Putin holding some higher position that would not give him formal leadership but would allow him to maintain influence in the political system. This would be a sort of transition period where Putin could delegate power to a successor and, in the first years, act as a kind of insurance in case of elite conflict or social problems.
As of today, no decision has been made about this, but I know that there are several groups of experts and institutes that are currently preparing some scenarios. Putin will make his decision in the first two or three years of his next mandate I think… he’s not going to decide right now. And a lot is going to depend on the state of the relations between Russia and the West at that moment, it’s a key factor that will impact the evolution of the power structure inside Russia.
Is there a feeling among the Russian elite that we’re entering a transition period?
The elite is very confused. No one understands what the future will look like. Nobody is worried about the election itself: it’s a technical, routine, even administrative question. But after the elections… no one understands what’s going to happen.
Rumours are flying around. Will Putin leave? Will there be a constitutional change to allow him to stay in power after 2024? That’s also being discussed. Will there be a successor? If a successor is to be named, will it be announced ahead of time? Or will they wait until 2024? Nothing is clear. And nobody will know what Putin has decided until the very last moment.
The uncertainty goes beyond the question of Putin’s future, however. Sanctions also play a role: they have a choking effect and it’s not clear what Russia’s strategy is when it comes to them. And when there is no money, who leads the country becomes less important than how to make do with the money that’s left.
There are also unpopular reforms that need to be carried out, but the population isn’t ready, and neither is the political class. So, nobody understands on what basis strong growth can be built. There are two structural problems: first, the lack of long-term loans, since Russia has been almost entirely cut from cheap western loans. The second problem is technology, and where to get it from. Import substitution isn’t working. We can try to make cheese and wine in Crimea, but we can’t make iPhones and Samsung Notes.
The elite understands that. Unfortunately, this understanding doesn’t fully extend to the country’s leadership. Right now there are lots of discussions, hopes that Russian scientists could come up with something by themselves, but…
The authorities are now in a strategic crisis. They can’t answer the question of how the country can develop when faced with a lack of resources and technology. They can’t formulate a clear policy.
Coming back to election, do you think that the Kremlin has a strategy when it comes to Navalny? Because it sometimes feel like they are never really sure what to do with him…
In December 2016, it was decided that Navalny would not participate in the election. If in November or October [of that year] the issue was being discussed, in December it was considered closed and Navalny was locked, let’s put it like that, into non-systemic politics.
Now, there’s another problem. Every time Navalny does something, they [the Kremlin] react to what happens, but they are always trailing behind instead of formulating a strategy. And the new situation that’s developing right now is that Navalny, contrary to what the Kremlin thinks, believes that he has the right to participate in the election and started actively campaigning. And he started attracting a lot of people in the regions. If before Navalny was a Moscow-centric phenomenon, he’s now being very active in the regions and developed a country-wide network.
Until recently, the Kremlin thought that they could let him do what he wanted, they simply would not register him [for the election]. He can write his blog, he can organize his protests with a few hundred people – so what? But after not just a few hundred but a few thousand people started to come to his protests, they started to worry. And we saw that his protests started being banned, the authorization he had already received for protests were taken away.
What is the Kremlin worrying about when it comes to Navalny? Obviously he’s not going to win the presidential election, so is it more about the protests? Why is Navalny a problem?
One thing is that you have this group of people in the Kremlin dealing with domestic politics. And to them, an election campaign is like… a technological product with which they try to please Putin. It’s very important for them to create a product that will be very effective: Putin just needs to be elected quietly and quickly, without fuss, with a good turnout and a good result.
And Navalny is spoiling all that. If he only kept writing posts on his blog, publish a few videos on Youtube, ok, they could close their eyes. But mass protests that go against the Kremlin’s position they can’t tolerate. Moreover, the campaign has been gaining momentum and the Kremlin sees this as a big provocation. And for Sergei Kiriyenko [First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration] and the people around him, the biggest fear is how Putin will react to this. They need to show that they’re able to conduct a normal electoral campaign.
So Kiriyenko plays an important role in this?
Yes, he’s a very influential figure right now. Putin has a high personal trust in him and I think that his influence is going to rise, not only when it comes to domestic politics but also in the social and economic spheres, which would be unheard of: never has the internal politics department held influence on economic and social policies.
With the preparation of Putin’s program for the election, Kiriyenko opened a channel, let’s say, through which he’s able to influence economic and social decisions. Putin and Kiriyenko work very closely with Kudrin, and Kudrin is a figure which today we can call the ideologue of Russia’s economic policy, and his influence is only going to grow.
What do you think is going to happen to Medvedev after the election?
That’s the question number 1, who will be Russia’s prime minister after the elections. Nobody knows, for now. The list of candidates is very long, and features a diverse group of figures. But the scenario which would see Medvedev keep his seat of prime minister has become more and more popular. If we remember, one year ago, nobody believed Medvedev would stay prime minister, but that’s not the case anymore.
I’ve heard from different sources close to the Kremlin that “Medvedev is in his place” (“Медведев – на своём месте“). You hear this exact sentence everywhere: Medvedev is in his place.
Putin loves easy decisions, and keeping Medvedev is an easy decision. But, on the other hand, when you look at the recent waves of appointments, rotations, reshuffles… there is movement in the political system. And this might not just lead to a push to change the prime minister, but to a reorganization of the power structure as a whole, including the government. There is a very strong demand for the creation of a more “dynamic,” a more “innovative” government.
So this rotation of officials is more than just preparation for the election?
Yes. Before, Putin didn’t like cadre reshuffles, everybody was sitting in their own place and he let them sit longer. To dismiss someone is an annoyance for Putin: you need to find a replacement position, compensation, explain why it was necessary… for Putin that was always complex.
Today, people are being dismissed very easily. The value of officials has lowered and moreover, it’s not always Putin’s decision anymore. Before, a change of governor was decided by Putin personally. Today it’s a decision taken by his circle, a “collective decision”. And in this system, it’s much easier to change people.
So there will be further reshuffle of governors, heads of companies, ministers… as well as in the internal administration and in the FSB.
What do you mean by “the value of officials has lowered”?
If we look at the former presidential administration’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, the decision to dismiss him was almost a historic event – it was a very difficult decision that was discussed and prepared for a very long time, there were lots of negotiations, lots of talks.
Today [at the same post], there is Anton Vaino. Well, there’s Vaino … and tomorrow maybe it will be someone else. Their importance is weakening. Vaino became the head of the administration because Putin has known him for a long time, they talk almost every day but… Putin has a lot of people in his circle. Vaino is no Ivanov, and it’s a similar story with governors.
Governors are now being chosen among deputy ministers. But what’s a deputy minister? It’s not someone who takes part in elections, who sat for many years in parliament, who knows how to run an electoral campaign, how to get in touch with the population, someone who has electoral resources, name recognition, some kind of ties with the local elites. A deputy minister is a politician who deals with sectoral issues, who doesn’t know anything about public politics and elections. And this kind of person is much easier to dismiss.
Do you think there are any interesting trends in Russian politics that need to be looked at? Something we haven’t talked about before, maybe?
I would look closely at the banking sector. Right now there is a risk, not very high but real, of the crisis spreading and creating a panic, and that’s what the Kremlin is the most afraid of, a bank run.
Otherwise, everything is mostly stable. And if the price of oil doesn’t crash, the situation will stay rather predictable. Even the question of constitutional reform is more of a technical one, because its goal will be to maintain the status quo. Maintain the course of the country and prevent any serious changes, neither a toughening nor a liberalization of the regime. It will be an inertia that will mostly depend on the availability of resources, as well as the price of oil.
One last question: Despite understanding that Russia needs reform, are Putin and the Kremlin scared of actually going through with these reforms?
Yes. It’s the eternal problem: economic reforms need to be done of course, the country needs to be modernized of course, but right now it’s stuck because of sanctions and the problems with the West. And with which resources can modernization happen?
But there’s also the psychology of Putin. Putin is convinced that Russia will, in the future, conduct successful, liberal reforms. He believes that Russia is slowly but steadily going in the direction of countries with a modern, successful market economy. Unfortunately, the influence of those who explain to him that the situation is, to put it mildly, not so good – the influence of these people is getting smaller. And on the contrary, the influence of the siloviki is rising – people who say that the country is in a dangerous geopolitical position and that right now is not the right time for reforms. Reforms are needed, of course, but not now. Later. This “later” has been going on since 2004. And I don’t see any changes in this regard…