I. Putin's Twilight
Putin is losing his grip on power. His allies - not least former KGB and current FSB operatives - are deserting him in droves, put off by his recent economic failures, the deteriorating security situation, as much as by his clownish and narcissistic public conduct. Erstwhile faithful oligarchs are now hedging their bets, putting feelers to the West and even colluding with the banished Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky.
In January 2011, a Medvedev aide called upon Putin not to stand for re-election.Medvedev has also been assertive in various international issues, such as the dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands.
Then, to add insult to injury, in February 2011, in an interview he granted to “Novaya Gazeta”, an opposition mouthpiece he co-owns, Mikhail Gorbachev, an extremely unpopular former Secretary-General of the Communist Party who is widely perceived to be the author of the demise of the USSR and the Communist Bloc, warned about an “Egyptian scenario” if the ruling elites don’t shape up. Indeed, Gorbachev is not the only one who is comparing Putin to Mubarak.
In June 2010, Mikhail Kasyanov, A former Russian prime minister, offered a spirited defense of incarcerated tycoon and Putin nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In a packed court in Moscow he labelled new charges against the disgraced oligarch “absurd”. The week before, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government for suppressing information or ignoring environmental problems. He threatened to get the presidency involved, encroaching on Putin’s turf, hitherto strictly off-limits.
Yury Shevchuk, a Russian musician and Kremlin critic of renown challenged Putin for his brutal mistreatment of peaceful protesters. With elections looming, Putin was forced to dissimulate: "protests don't hinder but, on the contrary, help" the government. "If I see that people are pointing to crucial issues that the authorities should pay attention to, what can be wrong with that?" he exclaimed, unconvincingly. "One should say, 'thank you.'" Following this tacit admission of defeat, Russian opposition activists rallied in Moscow on May 1, shouting slogans comparing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The authorities licenced the demonstration.
German Gref, general manager of Russia's banking behemoth, state-controlled Sberbank and the architect of Putin’s economic policies while he was President of Russia, said that “the first stage of economic reform, which had required a tightly held political system to push through change, was nearing an end. Russia must carry out sweeping political reforms to safeguard future economic growth” (Reuters).
As dictators the world over have learned to their detriment, a totalitarian regime is an all-or-nothing proposition. Cracks in the monolithically repressive state tend to grow into fissures and lead to a loss of power. The surest way to regime change is via political reform. Soft concessions yield harsh consequences and the overthrow of potentates and their cronies. Putin is repeating the mistake that the Shah and Gorbachev and a myriad other tyrants have committed: they hung themselves by giving the people a little rope. Putin’s days are numbered. His successor - not necessarily Medvedev - is sharpening the knife. This time, the transition may not be pretty.
II. Putin's Background
Being a KGB officer was always a lucrative and liberating proposition. Access to Western goods, travel to exotic destinations, making new (and influential) friends, mastering foreign languages, and doing some business on the side (often with one's official "enemies" and unsupervised slush funds) - were all standard perks even in the 1970's and 1980's. Thus, when communism was replaced by criminal anarchy, KGB personnel (as well as mobsters) were the best suited to act as entrepreneurs in the new environment. They were well traveled, well connected, well capitalized, polyglot, possessed of management skills, disciplined, armed to the teeth, and ruthless. Far from being sidetracked, the security services rode the gravy train. But never more so than now.
January 2002. Putin's dour gaze pierces from every wall in every office. His obese ministers often discover a sudden sycophantic propensity for skiing (a favorite pastime of the athletic President). The praise heaped on him by the servile media (Putin made sure that no other kind of media survives) comes uncomfortably close to a Central Asian personality cult. Yet, Putin is not in control of the machinery that brought him to the pinnacle of power, under-qualified as he was. This penumbral apparatus revolves around two pivots: the increasingly fractured and warlord controlled military and, ever more importantly, the KGB's successors, mainly the FSB.
A. The Military
In 2001, Russia announced yet another plan to reform its bloated, inefficient, impoverished, demoralized and corrupt military. Close to 200,000 troops are to go immediately and the same number in the next 3 years. The draft is to be abolished and the army professionalized. At its current size (officially, 1.2 million servicemen), the armed forces are severely under-funded. Cases of hunger are not uncommon. Ill (and late) paid soldiers sometimes beg for cigarettes, or food.
Conscripts, in what resembles slave labour, are "rented out" by their commanders to economic enterprises (especially in the provinces). A host of such "trading" companies owned by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense was shut down last June by the incoming Minister of Defense (Sergei Ivanov), a close pal of Putin. But if restructuring is to proceed apace, the successful absorption of former soldiers in the economy (requiring pensions, housing, start up capital, employment) - if necessary with the help of foreign capital - is bound to become a priority sooner or later.
But this may be too late and too little - the much truncated and disorientated armed forces have been "privatized" and commandeered for personal gain by regional bosses in cahoots with the command structure and with organized crime. Ex-soldiers feature prominently in extortion, protection, and other anti-private sector rackets.