Neither Purge nor Coup

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There is so much to say about Anders Aslund’s “Purge or Coup?” commentary in the Moscow Times. The big question on his mind is why Putin isn’t going to retire as promised. Aslund’s reasons are twofold: 1) There have been “serious accusations of corruption and grand larceny” raised against Putin requiring him to secure immunity via the office of the Prime Minister. 2) Putin is, in good old dialectical fashion, the identical subject-object of the system he’s created. If he leaves, Aslund asserts, “his system is prone to collapse.” Now, I completely dismiss the first and agree somewhat with the second. But my agreement with Aslund is for different reasons than he provides.

Putin doesn’t need immunity because there haven’t been any serious allegations of grand larceny. At least not enough for anyone in Russia to take seriously. Allegations of Putin’s wealth have come from abroad, mainly from an interview Stanislav Belkovsky gave in the German daily Die Welt. Belkovsky has no documents linking Putin to his supposed $40 billion. He only provides estimates of the wealth of shares Putin allegedly holds in Surgutneftegaz, Gazprom, and Gunvor. Now I have no doubt that Putin has stashed away a little sumptin’ sumptin’ on the side for retirement. I mean, if he can’t who the hell can!? The real question is what does the revelation of Putin’s alleged wealth mean and for who?

Aslund is convinced that Putin’s wealth was leaked by Sechin as the trump card in his clan war against Viktor Cherkesov. This was suggested by Luke Harding in the Guardian two weeks ago. But there has been little evidence linking the “leak” to Sechin. This hasn’t stopped the speculation, though. The main theory is that Sechin’s people leaked information about Putin’s wealth as retaliation for the hits they’ve taken over the last two months in what is now being called the “Siloviki War.” The logic goes that Putin’s picking Medvedev is a death blow to Sechin (who was apparently the main backer of the “third term party” who desired Putin’s return. If true, then wouldn’t Sechin be happy that Putin is sticking around?) But what does Sechin have to gain politically from outing Putin stash?

I would say very little. If Sechin is threatening Putin, then he’s only threatening himself. Any investigation into how Putin amassed his wealth would inevitably put the focus on how Sechin and his people got theirs. This seems to already be happening. Belkovsky’s assertions are beginning to engender other claims of massive Kremlin elite graft. In an interview with conservative Daily Telegraph, former Kremlin insider-turned-enemy Andrei Illarionov alleged that the Kremlin elites have all but drained Russia’s Stabilization Fund. This is a claim, forum.msk reminds us, that Russian economist Mikhail Delyagin made two months ago. “One gets the impression that someone in the leadership regards the Stabilization Fund as his personal wallet,” Delyagin said at the time.

If Sechin’s group did indeed leak information about Putin’s money, it was more to remind him that there are no Kremlin princes among thieves. No one is against or in “revolt” of Putin as Aslund claims. The back and forth between Cherkasov and Sechin is merely two clans jostling for position over their future. Putin has attempted to “contain” the “Siloviki War” with two counter moves. First, he anointed his own protege Dimitry Medvedev as the next Don. Medvedev’s loyalty is to Putin alone and therefore makes him a suitable future manager of the clans in. One should emphasize “future” because as things stand now, Medvedev is hardly strong enough to keep a balance between the clans. This points to the second move Putin has made. By accepting a position of Prime Minister, he lets everyone know that he’s going to stick around and make sure things don’t go to shit. The Medvedev-Putin “dream team” will manage the clans until Medvedev can do it on his own. Welcome to peaceful presidential succession, Russian style.

If you buy my take, then Aslund’s assertions that Putin has “carried out a coup against his KGB friends,” that the Chekists “undoubtedly loathe Medvedev, who has outwitted them,” and that they “hate their former friend Vladimir Vladimirovich” is absolute poppycock. None of the siloviki will be “discarded into the dustbin of history.” To cry that civil war is on the horizon is premature, if not down right silly. If the 1990s were as traumatic to the Putinistas as some claim, then they know well that they will gain nothing by a replay of the 1997 “Banker’s War” or, god forbid, another coup a la 1991. The days where “purge and a coup are obvious actions for a conspiratorial brain trained in the Kremlin” are gone. In its place we are seeing the post-Soviet Russian elite becoming what Marx called a class in itself and for itself. Clans will bicker. They will jostle for position. Sometimes daddy will side with one over the other. But to break the class deal will mean disaster for them all. In fact, the only thing that would spark said disaster is if Putin took Aslund’s advice to “fire all these Chekists before the planned coronation in May.” That, my friends, would initiate a bloodbath for sure.

Medvedev’s anointment is in the best interests of all of the clans, even if they might not fully realize it. To chose one of Cherkasov’s or Sechin’s clients would be like giving a kid the keys to a candy store. So no, this is hardly a “prelude to the fall of the KGB kleptocrats.” It’s about continuing their bountiful existence.