Putin is fighting corruption, but only to ensure loyalty among the country's oligarchs.
Tsar Peter I once proposed to his prosecutor-general that corrupt officials be either exiled to Siberia or executed.
"But then who will be left?" the prosecutor responded, according to the oft-repeated historical anecdote. "We're all thieves."
President Vladimir Putin repeated this tale during his press conference in December to illustrate how difficult it is to combat corruption. He was, of course, painting himself as the good tsar who, regretfully, had to discipline his bad boyars.
But if Putin wanted to be more honest, he could have chosen a popular Soviet-era joke about a minor bureaucrat imprisoned for graft:
"The poor guy. Why'd they pick on him?" one colleague asked.
"He stole too much for someone of his rank," another answered.
The second anecdote is more appropriate for the simple reason that it illustrates that official corruption is not a bug in Russia's operating system, but an essential feature. And it's a feature that Putin has used very effectively to keep the elite motivated and in line.
Putin's deal with the elite was always pretty straightforward: Steal (but not too much for your rank) and nobody will mess with you as long as you give unwavering loyalty to the national leader.
But now, one year after Putin won election to a third term in the Kremlin, he is rewriting the terms of the bargain. Putin's "New Deal" with the elite could turn out to be one of the riskiest and trickiest initiatives of his rule.
And it has nothing to do with fighting corruption. It's all about reestablishing control and ensuring loyalty -- both of which the Kremlin leader apparently believes are slipping.
This week, the State Duma is expected to pass the final version of legislation forbidding certain categories of officials from keeping their assets abroad. According to the daily "
Nezavisimaya gazeta ," the bill forbids officials from having a bank account abroad, keeping money in any foreign account, or holding bonds issued by any foreign entity. They will also be required to declare any foreign real-estate holdings.
The Russian media calls this the "re-nationalization" of the elite, and part of the logic behind it is the fear that Russian officials keeping assets abroad could turn out to be disloyal.
Such fears were redoubled by new legislation in the United States providing for visa bans and asset freezes against Russian officials who violate human rights. Some European countries are considering similar legislation, and Putin is clearly worried that this would give Western governments unacceptable leverage.
According to the respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko , Putin believes officials "should be completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president."
Additionally, the opposition's successful rebranding of the elite as "swindlers and thieves" has stuck in the public consciousness -- meaning the Kremlin will now need to more convincingly pretend to care about official graft. Some officials who thought they were untouchable will be vulnerable.
"This is a fundamentally new Putin with regard to the elite," political analyst Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, told the daily " Moskovsky komsomolets ."
"Previously, he kept the balance between the interest groups; now he has decided to reformat the elite. It had lived comfortably in symbiosis with the regime, and suddenly it was told that it needed to be nationally oriented, and not have accounts abroad."
If Putin follows through with all this, it will change his relationship with the ruling elite pretty dramatically. Putin's elite support was largely based on two services he provided: He was the ultimate arbiter in disputes between warring factions and he was the protector of their wealth and privilege.
Both could now come under question.
"This law is about political, and not legal, control," Dmitry Gorovtsov , a Duma deputy from the center-left A Just Russia party, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta." "It will be applied selectively and subjectively."
Putin, in essence, is asking the elite to give something up they had become accustomed to, while offering nothing in return. And this comes at a time when many of them are uncomfortable with the traditionalist and xenophobic line the Kremlin has recently adopted.
Whether this is an offer the elite can't refuse is still an open question. Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center told " The Washington Post " that Putin risks losing the support of key sectors of the ruling class, which could begin seeking ways to replace him.
Such fears may be the reason the Kremlin toned down an earlier, much stricter, version of the legislation now pending in the Duma.
Meanwhile, all this attention on the elite's property has been a godsend for oppositionists like anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny -- who appears to be delighting in stealing the Kremlin's thunder on the issue.
Navalny was instrumental in detailing and publicizing the undeclared real estate in Miami owned by lawmaker Vladimir Pekhtin, which was initially exposed by the Spain-based blogger Dr. Z.
Pekhtin was forced to resign his seat in the Duma as a result. His departure was followed by the resignations of two more lawmakers with undeclared property issues, Anatoly Lomakin and Vasily Tolstopyatov.
And last week, Navalny turned his sights on Andrei Turchak, the governor of Pskov Oblast whose father was once Putin's judo partner. According to documents Navalny posted on his blog , Turchak is the proud owner of an undeclared villa, worth 1.27 million euros.
And as the whole thing plays out, a funk is settling in among the elite, according to Gleb Pavlovsky , a onetime Putin adviser.
"It seems that Vladimir Vladimirovich's general idea is that only he should manage everyone, trusting no one. But this is impossible," Pavlovsky told "Moskovsky komsomolets."
"Officials at all levels perceive the president's strange behavior as a signal: Remain silent, don't act, and don't stand out. Remain sitting, do not move, and be afraid. Stagnation is setting in."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.