The Kremlin appears to have concluded that, with animosity toward the elite rising, the prevailing political status quo needs to be shaken up.
Vladimir Pekhtin did not go down easily. He needed a little push.
Amid the scandal that erupted when bloggers exposed Pekhtin's undeclared real estate holdings in Miami, he huddled late into the night with top Kremlin officials. The next morning, Pekhtin announced his resignation from the State Duma, where he had chaired the Ethics Committee. Pekhtin's departure from the lower house on February 20 was quickly followed by the resignations of two more lawmakers with undeclared property issues, Anatoly Lomakin and Vasily Tolstopyatov.
And last week's resignations, it seems, were just the beginning. At least six more legislators could also be on their way out soon, according to Russian media reports. And Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko told reporters this week that the resignation virus could soon infect the upper house as well.
It's tempting to dismiss all this as mere window dressing, a lame attempt by the Kremlin to pretend to care about corruption amid rising public discontent. And while that is certainly part of what is happening, something deeper than just a Potemkin purge also appears to be going on. "This is, in fact, part of the development of a new strategy and a complete reset," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the Russian elite, told Gazeta.ru recently. "A certain section of the elite is in a state of obvious confusion. People do not understand what is happening. They doubt whether they can exist within this system. Some are leaving. Some are being dismissed," she said.
Speculation is rife in the Russian media that something big is indeed afoot, with the possibilities ranging from a general purging of the ruling United Russia party's ranks to the dismissal of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government to early Duma elections and a wholesale overhaul of the current party system. "The formation of a new political reality has begun," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in Politcom.ru.
The Kremlin appears to have concluded that given the current climate in the country, with animosity toward the elite rising, the prevailing political status quo is no longer sustainable and needs to be shaken up. The old unwritten contract under which officials were allowed to line their pockets to their heart's content and bend the rules with abandon in exchange for unswerving loyalty to Vladimir Putin is being renegotiated. The protests in the winter of 2011-12, she added, spooked Putin's inner circle and exposed them to "new political risks" that needed to be neutralized. "In the second half of last year, the Kremlin started to realize that in the new political reality the reputational risks emanating from unscrupulous officials could lead to destabilization and become a threat to the 'national leader' and the institutions he relies upon," Stanovaya wrote.
So we had the anticorruption drive late last year that cost Anatoly Serdyukov his job as defense minister; the new legislation forbidding certain classes of officials from holding foreign assets; the drive to strip Duma deputies of their immunity from prosecution; and, of course, the latest wave of resignations from parliament.
The move to compel the elite to repatriate their assets also has a national security component as Moscow takes an increasingly anti-Western line. As political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote in "Novaya gazeta" this week, the fact that so many Russian officials hold foreign assets gave the West "a degree of influence" over the elite that Putin would prefer to eliminate. The current noise about foreign assets and the high-profile resignations, however, appear to be just a warm-up for bigger moves in the coming months that could move beyond parliament.
Political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko, whose think tank's "Politburo 2.0" reports on the Russian elite have become must-reads for Kremlin watchers, is predicting a revamp of Russia's ruling coalition in the near future. According to Minchenko Consulting's latest report, Putin is choosing from a number of options as he attempts to revitalize and restore balance to the ruling elite.
The softest option would involve a government reshuffle that keeps Medvedev as prime minister, but with strong and staunch Putin loyalists being installed as his deputies -- thereby further emasculating an already weak premier. More radical options include firing Medvedev's government wholesale and replacing him with either a weak functionary or a strong figure -- like Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin or Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu -- who would be seen as an eventual successor to Putin. A strong possibility, according to the report, would be to hold early Duma elections and follow that up with a government shake-up. And the authors do not rule out the possibility that Putin would allow United Russia to either lose the elections or have a weaker-than-expected showing. He could also use that as a pretext to fire Medvedev.
The situation is fluid and there are a lot of balls in the air at the moment, so it is difficult to handicap how this will all shake out in the end. But it does appear that the current status quo is about to be overhauled.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.