Russia’s war against Ukraine initially obscured tensions within the Russian elite but then exacerbated them. Both the Rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), Vladimir Mau, and three influential police generals from St Petersburg have recently come under criminal investigation. An influential businessman from Vladimir Putin’s entourage, Yevgeny Prigozhin, harshly criticised St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, although such a situation had been impossible earlier due to unspoken rules within the power vertical. Prior to that, the Secretary of the General Council of United Russia, Andrey Turchak, and the Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, had argued in public. Conflicts among high-profile politicians and the siloviki are a sign of the collapse of the old system and its body of laws and rules. The elite are fumbling around in search of the outlines of an emerging new order, and it is already clear that the creation of such an order will be preceded by inter-elite wars and repressions.
Mau, the rector of RANEPA, was detained on the same charges as Sergey Zuyev, the rector of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, aka Shaninka, a division of RANEPA. Mau is suspected of fictitiously employing several staff members at the university he heads. He is considered to be quite an influential figure within the Russian power vertical. The RANEPA rector was one of the authors of Russia’s economic reforms of the 1990s. He was a close associate of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Putin’s power vertical did not reject the liberals of the time; on the contrary, it welcomed them and gave them prestigious positions. People like Mau were consulted on economic and financial matters. They, in turn, were quite loyal to the system. RANEPA forged the Russian bureaucracy. At the same time, it included Shaninka, a hub for liberal and even opposition-minded scientists and practitioners.
Under Mau’s leadership, RANEPA was the Kremlin’s talent pool for future governors, and it enjoyed the generous support of Sergey Kiriyenko. In addition, RANEPA is an important partner of Sberbank, which is run by another very influential former politician who enjoyed Putin’s favour, Herman Gref. When he was prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev often met with Mau. Simply put, the rector has worked closely with a lot of close acquaintances from the president’s entourage. Nonetheless, this did not keep him out of trouble.
At the end of last year, it seemed that the Zuyev-Rakova case would not affect the rector of RANEPA. The media linked the case to the former Deputy Minister of Education’s conflict with the publishing business of the Rotenberg brothers. There was an additional theory that Zuyev was being chased by siloviki agencies for running an overly free-spirited educational institution, Shaninka. Mau was higher in the hierarchy and was therefore not affected by such squabbles: the free-spirited Shaninka is one thing, and the Kremlin’s talent pool is quite another. Until very recently the siloviki found it very difficult to bring down someone with such clout under the pretext of unreliability in order to make it look like work and a search for internal enemies. Against this backdrop, the cases involving former ministers Mikhail Abyzov and Mikhail Men are noteworthy. However, when the cases against them were initiated, these officials had already fallen into disgrace and had lost their positions. Their benefactors (former Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich in Abyzov’s case and the late ex-Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, in Men’s case) had also lost influence by that time.
The rector did not dissent, and he signed — albeit not immediately — a letter of support from the heads of universities for the ‘special military operation’. Although Mau was an integral part of the system and was ostensibly loyal to it, a criminal investigation was initiated against him, and he was arrested. The siloviki sensed that they could hunt down a heavyweight like him from the opposition liberal camp and win themselves a trophy. And they did. Their calculations proved correct. None of Mau’s partners and acquaintances stood up for him publicly, apparently sensing that doing so could now be very risky.
Shortly after Mau’s arrest, other high-profile cases came to light. The FSB searched the offices of Sergey Umnov, an aide to the head of the Interior Ministry and former chief of police of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region; Alexey Semenov, chief of the traffic police of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region; and Ivan Abakumov, former deputy head of the Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry for St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region. Umnov is considered to be a person close to Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, who is not an ordinary law enforcement officer or ordinary general. Most importantly, all three of the arrested high-profile police officers worked in St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, and Umnov was the head of the St Petersburg police headquarters. It is worth noting that this is a special position within the chain of command. Other executive positions in St Petersburg are also very influential, as the individuals occupying them are in touch with the President’s entourage. After all, Putin’s associates are also mostly natives of St Petersburg and have maintained their ties in their home city.
Umnov’s benefactors are probably more influential and of a higher status than Mau’s patrons, but they also failed to help Umnov. As in the case of Mau, the initiators of the personal attack were almost certain that they would succeed, that the scenario implemented by the siloviki would work and that the powerful benefactors would make no effort to protect ‘one of their kind’. Before the war against Ukraine, chasing after people holding high positions in the power vertical, similar to Mau and Umnov (a high-profile position implies informal connections), seemed to be a violation of the rules. In the past, if someone had decided to harass Mau or his entourage, they would have limited themselves to arresting Zuyev or one of Mau’s deputies. The same would have happened to Umnov. Respectable people tried not to get in each other’s way, and the arrest of Alexey Ulyukayev, the former Minister of Economic Development, seemed to be the exception that proved the rule which used to be one of the fundamentals of Putin’s system. The ball is in the FSB’s court when it comes to prosecutions; such high-profile arrests are negotiated at a high level. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly said that arrests of acting or even former officials are approved by the president. It appears that Putin is giving the green light to a new format of repression, and no one can change Putin’s mind, as direct access to the head of state is limited because of the covid restrictions still in place.
Fights in the open
Another fundamental rule that high-profile individuals should refrain from personal attacks in public has also been broken. The influential St Petersburg businessman Prigozhin, sometimes referred to as ‘Putin’s chef’, harshly criticised, in his Nevskiye Novosti media outlet, St Petersburg Governor Beglov. Prigozhin accused Beglov of failing to fulfil his business commitments. Prigozhin said that his company had signed an agreement with the governor that the latter subsequently gave short shrift to. Prigozhin described city hall as ‘a gang of people lining their own pockets and not delivering on their promises’, and he called Beglov ‘a petty tyrant’.
‘If Beglov behaves this way with me, then the ordinary investor can count on nothing. When I was helping Beglov to elbow his way, people would chase him, begging him to «do at least something». Their hopes were dashed. The man doesn’t want to do anything. Alas, look at his rejuvenated looks. Regrettably, Beglov’s anti-ageing massages and treatments are doing nothing to improve the lives of Peterburg residents’, said Prigozhin, not mincing words.
The media have written about Prigozhin as the founder of the Wagner private military company, which has been fighting in Syria and Donbas (the businessman himself denies this). Rumour has it that the president awarded Prigozhin a Hero of Russia star for the successful actions of the Wagner mercenaries in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. The businessman can now be regarded as one of Putin’s associates. On the other hand, Beglov also used to be part of the head of state’s entourage and held a strong position within the Russian hierarchy. In 2019, Prigozhin’s men helped Beglov in the gubernatorial election. However, they were at loggerheads soon afterwards, as Beglov refused to play ball with Prigozhin. It used to be a taboo for big shots to make such conflicts public. But at the end of last year, the media close to the businessman launched a smear campaign against the governor. The leader of the popular band Leningrad, Sergey Shnurov, released several songs critical of the city authorities, allegedly with Prigozhin’s backing. This was a sign that the old rules no longer applied. The power vertical was supposed to be harmonious; at least the citizens should have had that impression. The members of the elite were not supposed to wash their dirty linen in public.
Now Prigozhin has not only called a spade a spade but has also specified the reasons for his conflict with Beglov and his own role behind Beglov’s election as governor in 2019. Such openness was unthinkable not long ago. Now it is possible, as is open conflict between influential people. This rule had already been broken by Volodin, the Duma Speaker, and by Turchak, the Secretary of the General Council of United Russia, who also washed their linen in public a few weeks ago. They did not mention names, but they made it very clear who they were tongue-lashing. No one among Prigozhin, Beglov, Volodin and Turchak has been taken down a peg. There is no evidence any covert negotiations are taking place to make them fall into line. Rules are being broken, and no one is making sure that fair play is observed.
The dismantled old order and permanent conflicts between high-ranking politicians and officials are a sign of the new wartime. Not only has the war against Ukraine failed to unite the elite, but it has also exposed splits and divides. The president is preoccupied with the war and has lost track of what is happening in the country. Members of his inner circle who are not directly involved in the war have limited access to the president for these reasons and because of covid restrictions, but he is easily accessible to the siloviki. Due to his secret-service background, Putin understands the repressive logic, so he gives the siloviki free hand when it comes to arrests.
It is becoming easier for the siloviki to ramp up repression, including against influential figures. By doing so, they are gaining more clout. They could not take a swipe at someone like Mau before, but now they can, and no benefactors will be able to fight back on his behalf. The old rules have been discarded. A new proposal is on the table, and it has not been called into question so far. The same can be said of public feuds; they are increasingly frequent, and no one is moderating them. Prigozhin scolds Beglov, but Beglov keeps his position; Volodin is at loggerheads with Turchak, but both politicians stick to their guns, and the Kremlin does not take them down a peg or two.
The very attempts to formulate new rules show that the system based on the old rules is in ruins. The elites are waiting for a new order to emerge and are themselves trying to impose new rules. At the same time, they are trying to upgrade their own status, to gain more influence and powers, new opportunities and new roles in the new, post-war reality. The developments in recent weeks outline the rather menacing contours of the new system; the siloviki are ready to crack down not only on the opposition but also on people from influential groups (including from the siloviki). Big shots are ready for a war of all against all for resources. They are not waiting for the president’s instructions but are acting at their peril. As long as their sentiments are in line with those of the president, luck is on their side. It is very likely that it will be the ‘hawks’ who will develop a new set of rules for the new system.