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"Russia’s Choice: Change is Coming" by Nikolai Petrov

The message of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address of 1 March was clear: those in power have no agenda to reveal before the country’s presidential elections[1].  It is then easier to discuss what will occur during the next presidential term, based not on speculation about the government’s potential actions but instead on what the government objectively will be compelled to do purely by circumstance. 

The Future Socio-Political Situation

It can be assumed that in the next three years the Russian government’s socio-political activity will be influenced by three intertwined processes: (i) a transformation of the political system, including laying the groundwork for changing the scheme of Putin’s power from president to a leader in a broad sense, without which the consolidation of the regime during his final term as president would be infeasible; (ii) convincing Russians under the mounting pressure of the political calendar of the “human face” of the government by budgeting funds to adapt the country to the present economic and international-relations realities, including the pension system and tax reform; (iii) the renovation and reconstruction of the archaic and primitive political system, which is morally and physically outmoded. Developed in “the years of fat”, the system is now unable to live up to the challenges of the modern world. It is worth noting that ever since the failed reforms of 2004, the government has undertaken no serious action in the socio-economic sphere. All it did was aim to keep the status quo.

Today, with resources slowly drying up, the government is forced to act, which may cause tension and conflict. The Putinist system simply never developed the mechanisms for balancing the various interests of the federacy, the regions, and groups of all kinds.

What follows from this is that, first, the government has to undergo a thorough personal and functional makeover to transform from something akin to a supervisory board caring for the best interests of the main stakeholders into a genuine team guiding the ship of state through as yet unchartered waters, perhaps encountering shoals on the way; second, the party system must be radically modified before the Duma elections scheduled for 2021 because the system’s potential is non-existent (and has been for a long time) and the makeover will affect not only the ageing party leaders but the entirety of the party and political landscape; third, Russia is going to experience mass citizen protests over social problems, as well as the government’s probable response to these protests, and that response, in the form of instruments of repression, is already at hand[2]; and fourth, when it comes to the existing elites, both federal and local, the repression machine is already in motion[3]  and will work at greater speed given the yawning chasm between the need for social and economic growth on the one hand, and the real possibility of meeting those needs on the other, especially given Russia’s juxtaposition with the Western world. Thus, Putin’s final term in office is going to be a transition period from a “carrot era” to a “stick era”.

The Regime Exchanges the Elite—The Elite Changes the Regime

What Russia is currently facing, therefore, is a thorough modification of its political system. In fact, however, this has been ongoing since 2014. The latest legitimisation of Vladimir Putin’s power—no longer as only an elected political leader but as a leader—has totally changed the political design of power in Russia. As the main source of all legitimate power, Putin is far less dependent on the elites than before. The elites, in turn, are far more dependent on him than they are on the citizenry. Russia’s annexation of Crimea marked the beginning of a radical exchange—strategic rather than circumstantial—of the country’s political elites. Commentators and experts have nicknamed the process an “administration earthquake”, a “purge of governors” and an “administration revolution”. What we are witnessing is perhaps not only a reconstruction of the political elites, a symptom of the transformation of the regime, but also a further evolution of the system ignited by the new replacements within the elites. It is vital to understand that this is not just a thorough reform of the administration staff within the system but a radical change of the system accompanied by reform of the administration staff.

In its present condition, the system—unlike, for instance, its Soviet predecessor—cannot reproduce on its own. The personnel changes within the last three years are not necessarily an attempt at manual control but a reflection of a change in the nature of the system itself, which can be called “Centralisation 2”. If in the “Centralization 1” stage, the political machinery of the regions was demolished and Russia transformed from a “federation of regions” into a “federation of corporate business companies”, the radical administration staff exchanges in the years 2014-2016, following criminal indictments and arrests among senior “corporate” management (from the Russian railway to the presidential administration to the customs office), resulted in the annihilation of autonomic and semi-autonomic structures. Excessive centralisation, going well beyond what common sense and even minimally effective management would advise, coupled with the inability of conflicting interests to compromise, only compounds the “impotence of omnipotence” effect, to quote Guillermo O’Donnell’s phrase. That is another issue for the government to solve.

A far-reaching exchange has also taken place in the power structures (silovye struktury) which, as it turned out in 2016, were seriously ailing, both the whole and in each and every one of its many constitutive parts. The siloviki have been centralised, instrumentalised, and sidelined in terms of power. To date, the thorough ongoing “perestroika” of the force structures of the Putin regime, overgrown after the annexation of Crimea, has spared only the army. Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, gradually growing to be more and more like Marshal Georgy Zhukov, is, however, just an exception to the rule. The most crucial changes include: (i) the weakening of the construction of the special services and the domination of the Federal Security Service (FSS) by removing the National Guard, as well as migration service and drug-control service from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; (ii) a wide exchange of higher officials in virtually all structures, bar the Ministry of Defence, along with retirement from the game by their old heads, including men such as Evgeny Murov, Sergei Ivanov, and Yevgeny Shkolov, leading to a loss of political influence by the whole bloc and the elimination of its backlogging internal problems; (iii) a complete exchange on the “Mount Olympus” of the force structures, involving the removal of half the players in the game, with just a handful of younger old-timers remaining, including Alexander Bortnikov (FSS), Alexander Bastrykin (Investigative Committee), and Vladimir Kolokoltsev (Ministry of Internal Affairs); (iv) reform at the higher official levels of the economic divisions of some of the force structures, particularly in the economic security departments of the FSS and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which monitor business in Russia, and weakening their effectiveness.

Black Rams Instead of Black Swans

It seems, however, that the transformation of the political system will carry on not according to some general plan but as a response to a series of crises, that is, as a reactive policy of modernisation. Where are crises to be expected? In the management system, because of the extent to which the governing elites are degraded, inflexible, short-sighted, and conflict-prone. Both within the vertical structures of power (including the force structures) and among them, from the federal level to the regional to the local, there are ever-growing problems with the distribution of the shrinking income sources and benefits related to political domination. Because appropriate procedures are lacking, conflicts of this nature can only be resolved one at a time, and their number and scale will keep on growing, resulting, however, in ever more serious crises. An illustration of this is the relationship between the state and business, held together by many different bonds. 

On the one hand, the structures of power, and its force part in particular, are gulping down the last independent or “ownerless” bites (from the point of view of the main business clans, such as Bashneft and AFC Sistema, taken over by Rosneft, or the Magnit trade chain taken over by VTB bank). On the other hand, the shrinking of available resources leads to increased rivalry between the clans for access to power, in accordance with the principles of social Darwinism.

The problems with which the system will be forced to solve soon after the election are varied and have been growing for years.

1. Vital problems have remained unsolved (the Soviet territorial economic and population structure is outmoded and utterly ineffective in the new reality; the technical and social infrastructure are unused).
2. Inactivity or acting without taking long-term effects into account have caused new serious problems (ignoring elections and all public activity, resulting in the degeneration of political elites and decreased quality of government).
3. Changes of a general nature (of the political and economic base, as well the situation outside Russia), along with the arrival of new threats and challenges, make problems out of what has recently seemed positive aspects (the primitivisation of the political ideology, excessive centralisation and unification—allowable while protecting the status quo but no longer adequate when the system is disturbed). The current system has run out of energy, just like an old car that goes downhill easily but when it comes to driving uphill, lacks the necessary horsepower and begins to slide back down.

It needs to be pointed out that, according to the Citizens’ Initiatives Committee (KGI, Komityet grazhdanskih innitsyativ) socio-political monitoring of Russian regions[4],  during the last three years there has been a disjunction between the complexity of external challenges which the regions have to meet and the tendency to oversimplify those challenges as a political project based on imported “efficacious managers” for the positions of governors, shuffling staff in the higher echelons of official hierarchy, marginalisation of the opposition in all sorts of representative bodies, and rejection of genuine, direct elections of city mayors. Meanwhile, there has been a perceptible, though not blindingly obvious increase in the scale and geographical scope of social protest, usually triggered by local causes.

Thus, the threat the system fears is of an internal character and even if the Kremlin should be lucky enough to be spared “black swans” swooping from the outside, the coming days are going to be tempestuous, with many crises brought about by a variety of causes. 

A New Homeostasis?

Today’s relative stability is ephemeral, for at least three reasons:

  • given the strengthening of personalism in the Russian authoritarian regime, along with the continual weakening of institutions, the stability of the system rests solely on the person of an extraordinarily popular leader: once he is gone, or even just weakened, the system will plunge into chaos;
  • the Russian state has long been living in debt, both in geopolitical terms and in the sense of regional budgets and consumer credit. Even such a simple thing as debt service is soon going to become an unbearable burden;
  • all the government’s decisions, often wrong, have been aimed at retaining the status quo; Russia is not ready, either on the institutional or on the personal level, to face the changes coming in 2018.

Since 2014, when the political system lost its relative balance, it has been undergoing significant transformation and remains in a transition period[5].  The task for the near future is to announce new rules of the game, drawing new boundaries for the ruling elites. Today, when the elites are frightened and suppressed, the system can still be monitored and manipulated at will, but it is partly paralyzed, and quick to build all kinds of tension. 

The Pendulum Swings toward the Regions

Reorganisation of the entire system of relations between the centre and the regions is absolutely inevitable. In the last years, the system worked as a zero-sum game: the interests of the centre had increasingly better representation in the regions, while the regions’ representation at the centre became progressively worse. What can ensue if the federal government’s decisions do not take regional needs into account was shown by the mass protests in Vladivostok and Kaliningrad in 2009-2010. The system has not changed since then and the only reason why there were not more instances of such regional unrest was the relative inactivity of the government. Russia’s transition from torpor to action makes the question of effective communication topical: communication between different parts of the system, including the regions and the centre.

Rather than oiling the institutional mechanisms of harmonising federal and regional interests, the Kremlin launched a powerful offensive on regional elites that climaxed in a governor purge (in which, among others, several regional leaders were arrested under a variety of charges). The 2017 personnel exchange of almost one fourth of the state’s governors fully revealed the Kremlin’s take—which, by all accounts, seems wrong—on effective management on that level of administration. The majority of the new nominees are not local men, the so-called Varegs, but a contingent flown straight from Moscow. These individuals not only have no relation to the regions they took under their governance but also are not important, independent agents in the hierarchic bureaucratic universe. On the whole, these people see their posting in the region as a temporary career phase and are highly motivated to leave their posts quickly and move somewhere else. A tally of the pros and cons of such rotation of personnel is radically different when viewed from a short-term perspective than a long-term view. In the short term, there is the benefit of the “honeymoon effect”, a time of squaring accounts with the previous administration and leniency in judging the new one, precisely because of its newness. This can last for up to six months, so will end soon after the presidential elections of March 2018. From then on, the inevitable costs entailed by the management exchange and reorganisation of the administration, together with the “young technocrat’s” ineffectual actions will begin to rise steeply. It is worth noting that all this is occurring in a social context of high civic protest and conflicts within the ruling elites.

What is particularly noticeable today are attacks on the Republican elites, along with attempts at de-ethnisation and uprooting. As is well-known from our most recent history, this dramatically increases the threat of ethnic conflict, especially with a weakened centre. What happened during the last few months in Tatarstan (the centre’s response to the bank crisis and the Tatar language learning question) and in Dagestan (forceful removal of the clan and ethnic local elites from power, the introduction of a kind of external management) can be interpreted either as an attempt at blunt centralisation or an attempt to secure a more powerful position before de-centralisation. It must be noted that the real status of ethnic regions’ authority does allow for the future development of classic federalism in Russia, fairly unencumbered by elements of ethnic statehood and ethno-federalism.

In a sense, re-federalisation, together with the delegation of a large part of authority to the regional level, happened long ago. Without it, it would be virtually impossible to break out of economic stagnation and move toward development, as the latter involves the freeing up of regional initiative. It must not be expected, however, that the centre will delegate willingly, as the political dynamics have veered in exactly the opposite direction in recent years. Thus, the most probable scenario is that of reactive de-centralisation through a series of crises, with the regions subsequently claiming part of the authority reserved by the centre today.

At some point power might automatically move from the federal level to local leaders, as in the 1990s. The problem is that the leaders today are politically demoted and it is highly unlikely that they would succeed in reclaiming their significance. The local elites have been effectively uprooted and are partly paralysed as a result of the repression in recent years, and far from consolidated. A re-creation of regional ruling elites is feasible, though not immediately. The process must run parallel to de-centralisation and re-federation. And what matters is not just selecting the right people, that is, what the Kremlin is currently trying to do, but also their education, teaching them values, helping them to acquire political knowledge and skills. 

The key factor in improving the quality of regional elites, as well as the political development of the country as a whole, is the reinvigoration of local government (myestnoye samoupravlenye, or MSU). Without reinstating so-called grassroots democracy—above all, the direct election of town mayors—neither re-liberalisation nor normal democratic political growth are possible.

The growth stage has a spatial aspect in Russia. What can be expected in the future is not just the continued integration of regions, e.g., the Jewish Autonomic Region and the Khabarovsk Country, but also further experimentation with super-regional government, as in the case of the network of courts of appeal. The transition from the stagnation paradigm to the development paradigm will inevitably lead to an increase in regional contrasts—a carefully balanced policy on the part of the centre is vital if a kind of territorial justice is to be maintained.

A related question is that of the validity of the continued existence of federal districts: would it be better to reform them or dismiss them? The recent exchange of presidential plenipotentiaries and police chiefs for the former district heads certainly does look promising for the districts. On the other hand, these nominations may be purely circumstantial and may have no real impact. Anyhow, the future lot of the federal district seems secondary to the unity-regionalization dilemma. If the country’s development moves in the direction of regionalisation, the place of today’s “abandoned” federal districts may be taken by former associations of regional cooperation.

Russia and the World

In 2014, the Kremlin gambled on changing the established world order. In Crimea, Russia acted pre-emptively, reasoning that whoever was the first to break the old rules and enter the game according to new ones would be the biggest winner. Because of a multidimensional crisis in the West—with economic and immigration problems, as well as global terrorism and the weakening of achieved integration—this logic does not seem entirely irrational. The concept has not worked, however, and neither do various subversive actions in the West, nor supporting anti-system movements. Interventions in Western voting processes have not reaped many benefits, either. Ideas for geopolitical alliances, alternative to those with the West and in various configurations—with China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICs, or the Eurasian Economic Union—have not panned out. Incidentally, it was not the Crimea crisis that put paid to those, just the plain fact that for the foreseeable future, none of those projects can substitute for close cooperation with the West. Going in the opposite direction, therefore, is not rational.

The Russia of today has practically no allies, either in the West or in the former Soviet bloc, despite vast sums of money wasted on building patron-customer relationships. Even if Russia should adopt a radically different policy toward its neighbours, especially Ukraine (which is not very likely), the negative consequences of what has happened in bilateral relations would last for many years and decades to come.

In economic terms, the price paid for the upkeep of the current level of confrontation with the West seems too high for the Kremlin. And the problem is not just the stopping of economic growth because of financial and technological sanctions. If it were, those in power could make good use of the siege-mentality technique. However, only Western technology makes further consumption of gains from oil and gas mining at all possible—and the repression machine depends on these gains to function. In view of this, the near future will see attempts to make peace; already there are signals from various parts that the Kremlin is ready to reach out to the West. Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria, as well as cyberthreats can be perceived as an attempt to pressure the West to enter a dialogue—which Putin called for in a recent NBC interview. Putin himself confirmed the need to back out from the difficult confrontational position in his address of 1 March, quoted at the beginning of this article. No socio-economic reform is possible without Russia’s reverting to the previous levels of cooperation with the West.

As for internal political dividends, which might be jeopardized by compromise in the international arena, the tension can always be relieved via control of media. Conversely, some of Putin’s recent actions, such as threats against the U.S. in his address or the NBC interview, and pushing deeper into conflict with the UK, targeted at the home audience, will undoubtedly leave negative marks on Russia’s international relations. 


Russia is entering a period of enormous change. It will happen whether the Kremlin wants it or not. The question is, does the Kremlin realize that this change really is inevitable and that it could be the one to implement it?

The current political and administrative system appears quite well-suited to modern reality but is not suited to the much-needed growth. This will become clear when the system tries to go into motion: then it will turn out that there are no mechanisms to ensure working harmony amongst its constituent parts, or that they are weak from inactivity. In the early days of Putin’s fourth term in office, Russia is like a car that has not been driven for years and any attempt to quickly start the engine now will inevitably lead to failure and damage.

The alternative is backing out of Russia’s confrontation with the West. It does not mean, though, that the Kremlin would opt for this soon rather than become stuck in a blind alley because of inertia or thoughtlessness until a major crisis or that a policy of reuniting with the West would prove successful.

This article has outlined several key issues and growing trends in the socio-political dimension in Russia, both regional and federal. A wise government is one that can conform to objective laws of societal growth, such as the swinging of the pendulum from the centre to the regions, and to reap maximum benefits from any position it finds itself in. A stupid government tries to prevent natural processes and, like a miser, ends up paying twice—if he has money left at all, that is; and if not, there is always someone nearby, eager to replace him.


1. The final draft of this article was completed on 17 March 2018, on the eve of the presidential election in Russia.
2. Information has been published about multi-billion-dollar purchases in 2016-2017 of “special prison technology”, ca. 300 units per region. The regions to have received the supplies are the following: St. Petersburg; the Moscow, Svierdlovsk, Rostov, Novosybirsk, Samara, and Irkutsk districts, and Khabarovsk Country. Source: В. Воронов, “Арсенал страха. Росгвардия и МВД готовы к протестам на 10 млрд рублей,” Svoboda, 2 March 2018, https://www.svoboda.org/a/29071245.html
3. According to the author’s (N. Petrov) estimates, since 2015, every year ca. 2% of the highest representatives of regional elites (including regional leaders and their deputies, and mayors of regional administrative centres) have been repressed. In 2015-2016, three governors, 30 deputy governors, and six mayors were subjected to repression. In 2017, two governors were arrested (officially following voluntary resignation from their posts), as well as nine deputy governors or deputies of heads of local government, and one mayor.  
5 For more, see: N. Petrov, “The Year 2015. A Chronicle of Growing Authoritarianism,” Russian Politics & Law, Vol. 54, Iss. 4: Russian Politics at the End of 2015: Continuing Deinstitutionalization, 2016, pp. 317-340, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10611940.2016.1231560.

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