Putin and Elites

When supporters of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin argue that there is “no alternative to Putin” in the upcoming presidential election, what they have in mind is not the obvious weakness of four other candidates.  The meaning of the “no alternative to Putin” concept is broader: it implies that of all the people living on the Earth, Putin is the only person having experience and skills to serve as President of Russia for the foreseeable future.  Part of this conviction originates from the long-term Russian tradition of having a “national leader” – in whatever capacity — at the helm of the country; part of it reflects self-serving interests of the people benefiting from the current regime: state bureaucrats, United Russia party apparatchiks, and loyal businessmen.

Yet, it’s hard to deny that Putin has been one of the most successful statesmen in Russian history.  Of course, one can endlessly argue whether the collapse of Russia he is credited with preventing was imminent; or whether rising oil prices, not Putin’s statesmanship, were the main driver of the solid economic growth of 2000-2008.  One thing is clear: back in 2000, Putin understood the prevailing public sentiments, demands, and expectations.  He also recognized what kind of leadership Russia needed at the time – given its political and economic realities – and then was capable of providing exactly this kind of leadership.  Working in Putin’s favor has always been his reputation of a “real man,” sober workaholic, and efficient communicator.

What is usually less recognized — as a crucial factor of Putin’s success as president — is his ability to maintain consensus among Russian elites.  Putin has been remarkably efficient in his role of a supreme arbiter overseeing complex network of interactions between different, often feuding, special interests: “energy” and “finance” factions of the Cabinet; “chekists” and “jurists;” “liberals” and “conservatives.”  By listening to all sides and forcing them to compromise, Putin was preventing conflicts between elites before they festered – or, at the very least, before they boiled into the open.  As Putin’s close ally, former deputy prime minister Alexey Kudrin, said recently:

“Putin possesses a remarkable ability to listen to arguments [of all sides] before making a decision…So far, [he] has been successful in keeping a balance between positions of very different factions of government.”

Naturally, cementing Putin’s special position at the very top of the “power vertical” have been his sky-high personal approval ratings, as well as high ratings of his “pedestal” party, United Russia.  Equally important for the elites was the ability of the Putin team to deliver solid numbers for him and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Things began to unravel after Putin moved from the Kremlin to the White House.  The 2008 economic crisis has frightened elites lulled by Putin’s pre-crisis claims of Russia being an “island of stability.”

Attempts, however timid, by Putin’s “successor,” Dmitry Medvedev to become an independent center of power unnerved conservative factions of the elites; they became concerned that Medvedev’s reforms may go “out of control.”  Ultimately, Putin had to intervene by preventing Medvedev from running for the second presidential term.  However, Putin’s announcement that he’s returning to the Kremlin was met with unexpectedly broad public criticism – confirming the results of numerous sociological studies suggesting that the proverbial “Putin’s majority” was crumbling.  And scandalous televised firing of Kudrin by Medvedev created the impression that Putin wasn’t completely in control of the situation.

Putin’s once stratospheric approval ratings went down: in 2011, he lost as many as 15 points.  Finally, poorer than expected showing of the United Russia party in the Duma election proved that the Putin team can no longer deliver “target” election results at will.

Certainly, at the moment, there is no indication that a serious split among Russian elites has emerged, much less that Putin has completely lost his magic touch (that “Akela has missed,” in the words of Putin’s favorite Rudyard Kipling).  Moreover, Putin has embarked on a damage control aimed at reasserting his authority.  A number of public rallies in support of Putin the candidate were organized; the number of participants in these rallies in most cases exceeded the size of anti-Putin protest crowds.  In addition, while traditionally refusing to take part in TV debates with other candidates, Putin’s running surprisingly active campaign by publishing campaign manifestos, making lavish promises, and crisscrossing the country for photo-ops.  As a result, his ratings are on the rise again, virtually ensuring his victory in the first round of the vote.

It’s commonly assumed that political reforms recently proposed by President Medvedev – and grudgingly endorsed by Putin – were meant to be a response to the protest movement of “angry urbanites.”  However, the very scope and detailed nature of the proposed legislation lend credit to Medvedev’s claim that they were prepared well in advance of the Duma elections, in spring of 2011.  It seems logic that back then, Medvedev’s proposals were blocked by the conservatives who had Putin by their side.  If so, then Putin’s sudden acceptance of the reformist ideas might not be a concession to protesters, but rather an olive branch to the members of the reformist camp of the elites who are visibly upset with what happened to Medvedev.

The rapid political maturation of Russia’s middle class has been a rude awakening for the country’s political elites and gives them one more reason to feel worried.  The elites will be closely watching Putin for any signs that he’s no more in a position to best serve their interests.  Should they finally decide that Putin has exhausted his potential, an alternative to him will be found.  This change may coincide with the next presidential election.  It may not.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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25 Responses to Putin and Elites

  1. Pingback: Putin and Elites | Russiawatchers

  2. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    Hm..the “dictator” is actually a high-level delivery boy? Jut like in US? BTW rumors are that “Medvedev’s” reforms were prepared by Surkov and indeed, long time ago.

    • Eugene says:

      Well, delivery boy is perhaps an overkill, but why Russia should be different from the US in this respect?

      Sure, nothing should have passed by in this area without Surkov’s blessing, yet, Medvedev’s recent proposals look like blueprints from INSOR. Surprise?


      • Alex says:

        Of course – my question marks were “rhetorical”. Meaning, basically, that it is not Putin who must go … And voluntary go they, who should , will not. Neither do they or will “they” need any “progress”. or, especially, “reforms”.
        Did not pay attention to INSOR – you might be right.


  3. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    I basically agree with this article. Russia will have to move beyond Putin some day. Though none of the candidates in the Presidential race (including Yavlinsky had he been able to stand) has impressed me or looks to me a remotely convincing alternative to Putin that surely does not mean that there are no other potential leaders in the country and one of them is sure to take over one day.

  4. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Eugene,

    One further point about Putin. A point that it seems to me gets lost in all the discussions about him is the quite exceptionally ambitious and far ranging plans he is outlining. Not only is he proposing what is to all intents and purposes the economic reunification of most of the former Soviet economic space, but he plans an incredibly ambitious state driven programme of industrial modernisation, the establishment of a comprehensive Social Democratic welfare state and the complete re equipment and reorganisation of the country’s armed forces.

    Even if everything goes according to plan I cannot see how such a far reaching programme could possibly be completed in less than the dozen or so years that Putin has apparently allocated to himself. Needless to say if Putin were to succeed in carrying out these plans then he would have completed a programme on a scale comparable to that of Peter the Great or Stalin. If that is his intention then it seems to me that he must logically intend to remain in power for the full twelve years of the two Presidential terms for which he is eligible to stand.

    Which of course brings me to the point: how serious is Putin about these plans? My impression from reading Putin’s articles in translation is that he is completely serious about them. If so, what does it say about the question of his political orientation? This is something that no one ever appears to want to discuss but the combination of a state directed industrial policy with a comprehensive cradle to grave social security system would in European terms place Putin on the far left of politics together with the socialists and the more left wing Social Democrats.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      Putin isn’t known for being a strategist, much less “visionary;” he’s an excellent tactician, though. So I don’t really consider his articles as a comprehensive program of action. He just had to be more “comprehensive” this time (in 2000, he got away with a single article published in 3 newspapers; in 2004, all he did was to give an address to a hall of “trusted representatives”) because the pressure to go to debates was stronger than in previous elections.

      However, I do agree with you that if one tries to define Putin’s political views based on the articles, he traveled far-far away from a “liberal” he was once considered. Besides, even “extreme” left wing Social Democrats in Europe don’t propose a state body for solving each particular problem; nor do they almost double the number of state bureaucrats in just 10 years.

      Best Regards,

      • Sergey says:

        Definitely not extreme left Labour in UK increased total public spending from lows of ca. 36% of GDP to highs of 48% in a decade, and increase to 44% occured without any crisis. You are talking about a different issue, of course – a rise of state capitalism. That’s true, but also is a global trend – The Economist did have a nice feature on it a couple of issues back.

        Economic policies are growing to be much more variable than they used to be, and cannot be described by a simple left-right dichotomy. State capitalism and little public spending could coincide as in China. One indicator that Putin is not truly left is an explosive support for leftist opposition that we have observed in the last elections. If he were to move definitely to the left during the last years, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

        • Eugene says:

          Thanks Sergey,

          Sure, the left-right dichotomy is an oversimplification. Yet it pains me to say that the last time the Putin administration was implementing anything that can be called “liberal policies” was with Kasyanov as PM. Then he left, Gref left, and Kudrin was too much of a VVP friend. Or he wanted to become PM badly.


          • Sergey says:

            Eugene, yes, Putin has moved away from early 2000es economic policies in the direction desired by a median voter for sure. By the most starry-eyed estimates of “liberal” electorate, it’s not exceeding 20%, and it seldom was more. Perhaps such a shift was expected.

            Looking forward, Putin the tactician should continue moving in the same direction along with the population. Russia’s total debt is too low to expect a European-type backlash against social welfare state in less than a generation, perhaps.

            • marknesop says:

              Another oversimplification – and, if you’ll forgive me, a little beneath the standard of this overall very objective piece – is the suggestion that Putin is “of all the people living on the earth” the only person having the experience and skills to serve as President of Russia for the foreseeable future. If the presidential contest is open to all the people living on the earth, I could propose several excellent choices for leadership – I hear Kevin Rudd is free, since he resigned as Australia’s Foreign Minister yesterday; however, the successful candidate must be from Russia.

              It’s never been a question of Putin being the only person on earth who could preserve Russia’s fragile stability – and I don’t know why stability is such a scorned concept this time around, because there are a lot of countries that can only look up at it longingly who would like to have it – but that Putin is the only one from the choices available.

              Maybe the government should never have disqualified PARNAS; it merely allows them to claim that they could have done great things while never having to supply any blueprint for how they would have achieved them . But I’m very confident that if an inspiring leader emerged who had a solid plan and who captured the imagination of the masses, even if he or she had almost no political experience, nothing could stop them being elected. It seems unreasonable to me to blame Putin for the current sorry crop of alternatives.

              Is it your contention, then, that the only beneficiaries of Putin’s years in leadership have been “state bureaucrats, United Russia party apparatchiks, and loyal businessmen”? I only ask because I was under the impression that Putin had more than doubled wages during his tenure while cutting poverty by half.

              It appears to me that, in much the same manner as many artists must die for their work to become popular, Putin is the kind of leader who must lose and be unavailable to lead the country in order for his leadership to be appreciated. That presupposes that if Mironov won, for example, he would make serious mistakes that would cause terrible economic repercussions. I believe any of the Putin alternatives would do either that, or run the economy exactly as Putin would have done.

          • sildenafil says:

            Frankly I think that’s absolutely good stuff.

  5. Eugene says:


    First of all, I accept the blame for my “oversimplification:” it was an attempt to be sarcastic. But I’m really tired of being constantly asked: if not Putin, then who?

    Again, as I already argued on a separate occasion, I’m not against stability. I’m against the system where one single person can stay in power for 18 years, and, because this person values stability and loyalty, all his ministers and top bureaucrats stay with him. I call this stagnation.

    It is exactly Putin to be blamed to the lack of any alternatives to him, because over the past 8-10 years, his regime has been systematically shrinking the field of open political competition — by enhancing the power of incumbency to such surreal proportions that now, no one can get to the top unless selected by a “national leader.”

    No, I don’t contend that “the only beneficiaries of Putin’s years in leadership have been “state bureaucrats, United Russia party apparatchiks, and loyal businessmen”?” No, I consider them the PRIMARY beneficiaries. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why with all these petrodollars, income inequality keeps growing in Russia. And I don’t want even touch corruption here.

    As to your last para, the famous de Gaulle’s quote about indispensable people would be very appropriate here.


    • … by enhancing the power of incumbency to such surreal proportions that now, no one can get to the top unless selected by a “national leader.”

      What is stopping the Communists ditching Zyuganov, and cooperating with Fair Russia to field a united Left candidate? Nothing. That would be a credible challenge to Putin. It’s not Putin’s fault is doesn’t come about.

      Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why with all these petrodollars, income inequality keeps growing in Russia.

      Describing it as “growing” is a stretch. http://www.sublimeoblivion.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/russia-gini.jpg I’d say going from 0.40 to 0.42 on the Gini index from 2000 to 2008 is “stagnation.”

      • Eugene says:

        OK, in the spirit of cooperation, I take “stagnation” as a compromise description of what’s been happening in Russia in recent years 🙂

        I’d leave it to the Communists to decide who they want to have as their leader — it’s not my job, nor is it the job of anyone who’s not a member of KPRF. And anyone who bothered to read the programs of KPRF and Just Russia would see that the two have very little in common — so let’s stop this talk about a united Left candidate. Let’s better reflect on why over the past 10 years, only two political parties have been created in Russia — Just Russia and Right Cause (now nearly dead) — both being explicitly the Kremlin’s projects.


        • Sergey says:


          a couple of comments. Income inequality is indeed hard to measure, and there’s no difference between .40 and 0.42. What’s more important that there are alternative measures, such as wage inequality, which show somewhat more pronounced decline from 2000 (0.48) to 2009 and 2011 (both around 0.43-0.43). There’s some indication that in early 2000es Gini of wage was even higher, at least in Moscow – look for Guriev et al. study which they did using the illegal database on Moscow taxpayers’ wages reported to the tax authority. They found numbers in excess of 0.60.

          I leave aside you equating a statistically insignificant increase in Gini with Putin’s corrupt minions getting a larger share of oil pie. There guys, and several layers of their subordinates, are top-coded. You never see them in standard data. That’s why people prefer to speak about coefficient of funds (àverage wage of top 10% to average wage of bottom 10%) which is slightly less sensitive to the top coding problem. That coefficient has decreased dramatically since 2000. You could also see a steadily rising share of wage income in GDP as an indication of less overall inequality – wages are registered, and whatever the number of corrupt billions is, it’s still in the GDP number and sits in the residual.

          More importantly, I find your position a bit confusing. Putin is bad because he wasn’t running liberal economic policy since Gref times, but he’s also bad because inequality increased? Since then do liberals care about income inequality, and more importantly, how exactly could liberal economic policies reduce income inequality without relying on massive transfers (which are again non-liberal)? And so, on which count is the past and future president badder?

          • Eugene says:


            I’m not an expert on GINI and related indexes. So, could you please explain me — in plain language — what’s wrong with the HSE study mentioned in the article below?:


            There is nothing confusing in my position. I never blamed Putin for existing (if even not growing) inequality. It was my response to Mark where I implied that the elites were the primary beneficiaries of the oil/gas wealth. My position is very clear: go with liberal reforms first, deal with the rest later.


            • Sergey says:


              nothing is wrong. The key sentence (from the POV of our discussion) there is:

              “The huge gap between rich and poor “largely negates the economic and social achievements of recent years,” the HSE report said.”

              Most (if you take income inequality data) or more than all (by looking at wage inequality) increase in various indexes has happened in early to mid 90es. What HSE study has shown that the disaster of early 90es was so large that recent years achievements were not enough to make a sizeable dent in the fall of living standards for majority, as compared with 1985.

              BTW, Yasin has remarked at the public discussion of the report something to the effect “I always was a liberal, but perhaps I need to reconsider some of the views I held in view of the report”. Took him just 20 years, amazing achievement! One generation lost to the reforms which were sold as liberal. Now we are told they weren’t liberal enough either after Gref or even starting with Gaidar, depending on whom you ask. We need to do even more liberal reforming. Another generation down the drain.

        • Sergey says:


          KPRF consistently polls 20% of electorate. Yes, it’s their job to select a candidate better than Ziuganov, but society exists to tell parties about their preferences. Which the parties then try to respond to (by moving to the center in two-party systems making the choice incredibly difficult, for example). You cannot make the powers that be responsible for personal weakness of the opposition – after all, it’s a contest where every side wants to win.

          During these elections, there were several obvious choices that weren’t made – Dmitrieva as JR candidate, perhaps Navalny as Yabloko candidate (at least we would be able to see his actual support in the regions, judged by lack of need to provide copies of signatures). That would make for an interesting electoral battle, and maybe a significant probability of the second round.

          Still, for whatever reason you care almost exclusively only about what happens on the liberal 15-20% patch. This could be a valid position if you want to participate in that party’s construction. But you think of yourself as an observer of Russian political system as a whole, no? And you care about democracy in Russia? There’s no chance a properly liberal party comes to power – other than by another backroom deal when someone half-way liberal becomes PM, in violation of the Russian society’s preferences. Why not look at the whole spectrum of existing and emerging political forces and see what could really take place, instead of wishing for a mutually inconsistent set of outcomes?

          • Eugene says:


            The current political system in Russia is built on the lack of free political competition. Putin hasn’t destroyed any existing “major” political party — he needs them. He even created one for his friend Mironov. Yet, by banning the creation of new parties independent of the Kremlin, he preserves the status quo. That’s why Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky are leaders forever, and Mironov goes against the wishes of his own party. That’s why Yavlinsky runs his Yabloko with iron fist and keeps Navalny away? Let’s a new left-wing party emerge first and then we’ll see what happens to KPRF and Zyuganov.

            Yes, I do care about what looks like a stable bloc of Putin opponents, because as an observer of Russian political system as a whole, I consider this the most important development of the past 2-3 years — along with collapse of the so-called Putin majority. Where in the post did I call these people “liberal?” You did; I didn’t. (Liberal Udaltsov? Gimme a break!) I made it very clear that for now, these people are united only by demands of fare elections — and, by implication, of competitive political system. Once Russia has that and its citizens can elect their parliamentarians in normals elections, we’ll talk about chances of liberals — or Communists, or nationalists, or centrists, or frontmen, or whoever — to form government.


            • Sergey says:


              I guess I was responding to the universe of your polls rather that a single one, talking about liberals 🙂 Still, in all fairness – Udaltsov was against the regime for the last 20 years. The same goes for nationalists. PARNAS people were part of the regime in 90es. It’s addition of “liberal” or “democratic” forces to the opposition to the regime which is a big story of the last couple of years.

              Udaltsov and Limonov will be forever opposed – some people are just like that.

              I’m not sure what you mean by “normal” elections – we now heard the President castigating 1996 presidential elections as anything but normal. They were declared fully kosher by all the observers in the world. My claim is that most of the the 15-20% of the stable block of regime opponents won’t get their wishes fulfilled any time soon, mostly because they have no idea how to operationalize their wishes. But we have had this discussion already.

  6. marknesop says:

    The proposed amendment that no individual can serve more than two terms (no more “consecutive” loophole) should put paid to that. However, you might find at some point in the future that you wished the leader could stay on, and the no-more-than-two-terms limit was restrictive and not in the national interest.

    We obviously see Putin differently: I see him as one of the greatest statesmen Russia has ever had, and as unjustly maligned for his extraordinary service to the state. You (forgive me if I am misinterpreting you, which I would not willingly do) see him as a parasite swinging from the tit of Russia long after his welcome has worn thin. The trouble with this view is that he remains popular with a large proportion of the population in his own country, which I submit is the very core of democracy – it is thus not so much “a system where one single person can stay in power for 18 years” as it is the desire of a majority of the people that a leader you don’t much care for continue to rule. Yes, it probably was a mistake to announce “the switcheroo” in such a cavalier fashion, but in reality many people had been expecting it and it was much less a surprise than the western press made out. The protest likewise would probably not have amounted to much without western encouragement and calling it a “revolution” in the papers, and it seems to have lost steam pretty quickly. I think you will find, when Russia eventually gets a leader of whom you strongly approve, that you will wish his or her term did not have to end and will think that term limits are not such a necessity as you do now.

    I fully expect there will be a great kerfuffle if he wins on March 4th – which is coming upon us quickly – and that Nanalny et al will attempt to make a big deal of it. I would encourage them not to, because they might find the government a lot less sensitive to protest – in terms of noisily yelling about “taking the Kremlin” – after the election. That sort of talk would bring a visit from security professionals if it happened in the USA, and Navalny might find that getting carried away will not end in a 15-day lark the next time.

    I agree with you that Russia has problems and needs its entire creaky bureaucracy overhauled, but that’s a big job for one man and it’s harder to do when he has other political parties constantly inveigling against him. You are a man of the world, and surely you know that the motive of the “anyone but Putin” vote campaign is not to support the cause of Russian greatness or even to address corruption problems, but to weaken the government so that it will be forced to make concessions: the aim of this, in turn, is to increase the power of groups that feel marginalized rather than to push for reforms. I imagine some parties feel they would tackle reforms if ever they could get into power, but if they did they would find themselves confronting exactly the same set of problems. Being in the Big Chair likely has a salutary effect on perspective, and it is much easier to boast about the big changes you would make than to confront the reality of doing it.

    Someone has been feeding you bad information about income inequality; not only did it shrink significantly and fairly uniformly under Putin, it is today significantly less in Russia than that which prevails in the USA.


    “…According to a report released by Russian investment bank Troika Dialog in August…the middle class (defined as income/capita of more than $6,000 a year) already makes up 68pc of the population, against Brazil’s 31pc, China’s 13pc and India’s 3pc. ”

    Russia’s GINI Coefficient, in which a score of 100 suggests one person controls all the wealth and a score of zero indicates perfect distribution of income across the population, is 42.3% (or was in 2008, the last time a worldwide rating was conducted). The USA’s most current figure is 45. The most equitable country was Sweden, at 23.

    • Alex says:

      It seems, it was your turn to “oversimplify” re. your description of Eugene’s view of Putin 🙂 .
      But I wanted to mention few other things. Eg. about Gini index. Sergei (above) IMHO quite rightfully pointed that different cultures have different tolerances to inequality. In this regard, gini 45 in Russia may equate to gini 90 in US in terms of social tensions in the society it causes. From this pow, the growth of Gini in Russia from 2000 to 2008 is more important. For comparison, in Australia Gini is (from memory) ~ 30 – and from my observations, it is about as high as the society on this stage will tolerate. Add to this that with this relatively low Gini, the Australians are not at all keen to demonstrate their wealth to others as is the “tradition” among the Russians.
      The article you linked mentions a peculiar goal Putin set for 2020 – to reduce the percentage of “middle class” Russians (whatever it is in Russia) from the current ~ 67% to 60% in 2020 🙂 Russian joke, don’t worry : ) – I actually like Putin – it is just that I want to continue to like him, and that is why I think he should go – because the more palaces he or his friends in Government positions build, the more yachts or properties they own, the less chances that people like me would be able to remember Putins positive contribution. Amen?


    • Eugene says:


      The GINI coefficient for Russia grew from 0.395 in 2000 to 0.422 in 2009 (http://statinfo.biz/HTML/M1F59A5832L2.aspx). If this is not growing income inequality, then I don’t understand what GINI is.

      As for Putin, no, I don’t consider him parasite. However, I believe that Russia is mature country and society enough to stop relying on “national leaders” in whatever capacity. What it needs is a president — an official elected by citizens in honest elections to serve THEIR needs — who stays in office no more than two terms and then goes away, regardless of whether he/she was good or bad. The same for state officials: come to government service, work for awhile and then go back to private sector to make millions. Not the other way around. Is this too much to ask?


      • Oops, already covered.

        It’s impossible to measure the Gini index with any precision. The margin of error is typically +/-5. As such, an increase from 40 to 42 qualifies as “stagnation” more than anything else.

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