Could the Russian Elite Turn Against Putin?

The country's increasingly angry popular opposition can't force reform on their own, but many top officials and business leaders are deeply invested in the current system

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Russian billionaire and Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov attends a rally to protest vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections / AP

While the political impact of Russia's December protests remains uncertain, demonstrations in Moscow and other Russian cities have expressed public disappointment with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's economic management and even some genuine anger over his stage-managed nomination as the United Russia presidential candidate. What remains to be seen is how Russia's elite will react if the country appears unstable.

For the time being, those at the highest levels in Russia's elite appear to have decided that they will either hang together in supporting Putin or hang separately if he falls. They may well have received encouragement from nationalist anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, whose increasingly strident rhetoric--addressing a crowd of demonstrators on December 24, he said "there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin"--is rapidly approaching open calls for violent revolution. As the English writer Samuel Johnson said over two centuries ago, "the prospect of a hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully." Russia's top government and business leaders must be concentrating intently on their country's future and its more personal implications.

Nevertheless, even some in Prime Minister Putin's immediate circle might be hedging their bets--and they are only one small (albeit influential) segment of the elite.

More widely, attitudes toward Putin within Russia's elite depend on several factors. First, of course, is the probability that in remaining generally united around Putin, Russia's political and business elite can ensure their continued survival individually and as a group. The prime minister's reelection as president is a key step in that process, but it is only the first step. Managing Russia after the election may prove more difficult, particularly if the economy stagnates or deteriorates.

Second are the perceived potential dangers if Putin is not reelected. If Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov is elected, some might fear corruption trials, asset seizures or even imprisonment. Others might consider Zyuganov a part of the establishment and think him unlikely to overturn today's rules of the game. If Mr. Navalny and an army of the discontented--which may or may not actually exist--storm the barricades and to try rearrange Russian politics by force, the stakes could be higher.

In Russia's personality-driven political system, the third factor is loyalty to Putin. Since Russia's political loyalties appear to be quite "concrete" (konkretny­--meaning not abstract but tied to specific expectations), this will likely include its own calculations of the potential benefits of supporting Putin openly and the potential costs of crossing him at a decisive time. Between now and March 4, or indeed afterward, Putin and Russia's elite may have a Machiavelli moment that tests whether it is in fact better to be feared than loved.

With that in mind, the prime minister cannot take the support of Russia's elite for granted. Loyalty to "the party of power" is contingent on power; perceived weakness can quickly snap its bonds as each individual seeks to protect his or her own personal interests in a time of crisis. This in turn puts pressure on Putin to avoid any appearance of weakness, possibly reinforcing the preexisting instincts of the man who said "the weak are beaten" after the horrific 2004 attack and hostage taking at a school in Beslan.

This is all highly subjective and, as a result, is more suited to speculation than to analysis. Still, it may be useful to consider some admittedly speculative generalizations in thinking about elite support for Putin as the presidential election approaches.

Analytically, Russia's elite is split along multiple cross-cutting lines--the lines between politics and business; the federal, regional and local levels; pro-government forces, the "approved" systemic opposition (who oppose Putin but currently operate within the rules he has established), and the nonsystemic opposition (who oppose Putin and the rules he has established); those inside the security services and those outside; and Putin's senior political lieutenants, principal business dependents and everyone else.

Those in the nonsystemic opposition--leaders like Nikolai Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov--have already chosen sides. Thus some of their calculations are already evident; this segment of the elite is already opposing Putin and the governing structures he created. What is not known is whether these individuals would support extraconstitutional measures if Russia faces a real political crisis or widespread violence. Doing so could carry significant risks for people who oppose the system but are currently generally tolerated by Russia's regime.

The systemic opposition also might confront this choice if Russia's political system comes apart. More immediately, however, politicians like Communist Party head Gennadi Zyuganov, Just Russia leaders Sergei Mironov or nationalist eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky might see an opportunity to redefine the rules in their favor after December 4 State Duma elections that substantially increased their collective representation in the parliament and handed United Russia a symbolic defeat. While some have been more independent of Putin than others, and there are questions about the seriousness of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's possible candidacy, a few in this group might even see an opportunity for an opposition leader to win the presidency. The natural response would be tentative but escalating tests of the boundaries, accelerated by the pressures of the looming March 4 election.

President Dmitri Medvedev's former supporters comprise a separate group that is not quite opposition but also not quite pro-government -- their reason for existence was precisely to replace Putin and to change some government policies (though not the system as a whole; there was no indication that Medvedev would strive to run free and fair elections). Further, having been surprised by Medvedev's announcement that he would support Putin, it is not certain that they are now prepared to back either leader.

Middle- and lower-level federal officials, as well as a number of regional and local officials, have completely different incentives and disincentives. On one hand, most are heavily dependent on Prime Minister Putin, who can remove them relatively easily if affronted. On the other hand, most are also sufficiently removed from Putin personally to avoid the risks in going down with a sinking ship. In the absence of specific threats to individual interests, this segment of the elite -- the largest in number -- is thus strongly motivated to do enough to help the prime minister to win the presidency so as to avoid blame while simultaneously waiting with a collective finger in the wind for the election outcome.

Russia's top officials (including top security officials) and major business leaders confront the most difficult dilemmas. They also depend overwhelmingly on Putin and the current political system and are most vulnerable to changes -- particularly changes that include investigations and prosecutions or (worse) mob justice. At the same time, their outward conduct is under close scrutiny. As a result, their calculations are likely to be the most complex and least visible.

In thinking about this final segment of the elite, it may be perilous to ignore one sometimes-forgotten reality: namely, that the prime minister has dished out disappointment to many of his subordinates during his years in office. Most notably, Putin frustrated Dmitri Medvedev's hopes for reelection as president. If Medvedev in fact becomes Putin's prime minister, he will hold a central position in Russia's post-March politics. Moreover, Medvedev has already publicly disagreed with Putin on important policy issues, including in expressing greater sympathy for Russia's protesters.

Meanwhile, former deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov has become head of the presidential administration, making him Medvedev's top aide today and, in Putin's view, his own chief assistant in May, after Russia's presidential inauguration. Putin publicly embarrassed Ivanov in 2008 by selecting Medvedev as his successor after Ivanov had been the heir-apparent. Though Medvedev and Ivanov had been rivals and could remain so if Putin is elected, the pair might instead believe that they share the experience of having been encouraged to hold false hopes by their mutual political patron. Who knows?

Moscow politics are far more open to the outside world in today's Russia than in Stalin's Soviet Union, famously described by Winston Churchill as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Despite this, Russia appears to have reached a point at which the strongest tool of prediction--past behavior--could have lost its utility. Public pressure appears likely to have a stronger influence over how Russia is ruled than in the recent past, but absent a genuine revolution the competition within Russia's elite could prove decisive. Moreover, while substantial segments of the elite could adjust to or even welcome new leadership, only a small portion seeks to overturn Russia's political system or to establish a Western-style democracy.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site.