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Putin’s One-Man Show

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (June 3−7)

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The St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) has long been the main showcase for Russian economy. The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin have used it as their best bid to show that the country’s political freedoms may not be flourishing but its market freedoms are. State companies and large private businesses welcome foreign players with open arms and are ready to cooperate. One of SPIEF’s main shticks was its informal atmosphere, with receptions, dinners, concerts and parties organised by state companies and even government agencies. The event became increasingly ritualised after the first Western sanctions were imposed in 2014, but since the outbreak of a full-scale war against Ukraine, it has become a caricature of itself.

The organizers try to preserve appearances, so there are no representatives of what Putin has called the «new elite» — veterans of the so-called Special Military Operation — among the speakers. However, the Zeitgeist is still palpable at the SPIEF: there is no shortage of panels on «traditional values» and the «demonisation of Russia.» Besides, the forum also delivers very specific economic news, for example, on the supply of llama meat from Bolivia to Russia.

Putin, or his advisers, decided to bring back the «informal» past of the Forum and used it as a platform to send geopolitical rather than economic signals to the West. The Russian leader gathered journalists from «unfriendly» countries for a meeting, apparently expecting them to ask questions not about investment but about the war and Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States. This calculation paid off, yet, Putin still failed to communicate a clear and unequivocal message to the «unfriendly» countries. On the one hand, he threatened the West with arms deliveries to certain countries that might attack it. On the other hand, he made emphatically peaceful statements that Russia was ready to cooperate with any authorities in European countries and the United States if these authorities were guided by business interests. Putin said nothing new about the war against Ukraine. As a result, the threats nullified the invitation to peace, and the Russian leader did not go beyond his usual role and public image in his semi-informal dialogue with journalists.

The key session of the forum, attended by Russia’s head of state, also failed to produce any clear messages. On the one hand, Putin spoke of the success, both real and imaginary, of the Russian economy in attracting potential investors, albeit from friendly or neutral states. On the other hand, the meeting was moderated by political scientist Sergei Karaganov, who has recently been actively urging the Russian authorities to consider a pre-emptive strike with tactical nuclear weapons against European countries supporting Ukraine. Russia’s few remaining friends have listened to Putin’s lectures on stability and development and have received the clear implication that Karaganov, a proponent of nuclear weapons, is not just a publicist but someone who has access to the top man in Russia. In such a context, the threat of a strike does not seem so insignificant anymore, and this in turn eliminates the prospects of any cooperation with Russia for any state that wants to remain part of the international market system. This multidirectionality of messages is clearly not conducive to strategic planning of engagement with the Russian authorities, even for those countries that do not mind cooperating with the Kremlin. Constant trolling and threats make Putin and his subordinates extremely toxic partners, but the Russian president can no longer help himself, and his inner circle only indulges his whims in the hope of securing career advancement and access to new resources.

Kids’ playground

The SPIEF became a platform for Putin’s children (both of his daughters were listed in the programme and gave talks) and for the representatives of his inner circle: for example, Alexander Vaino, son of Anton Vaino, the head of presidential administration, and Roman Rotenberg, son of the businessman Boris Rotenberg, were in attendance as well. None of them occupy significant positions in the vertical of power (at least not yet), but they were seen at the Forum. The significance of their public sighting should not be exaggerated — all of them have been in the media for a long time and work in their current positions, which means that they have been co-opted into elite circles. The children of those who belong to Putin’s inner circle have long been given bread-and-butter positions. The son of Sergei Ivanov, the long-serving former head of the presidential administration and Defence Minister, began his career as far back as the early 2000s, while the son of the now ex-Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, Dmitry Patrushev, even rose to the position of Deputy Prime Minister. However, the «heirs» occupy a very small niche in the top and even middle ranks bureaucracy, as they do among the several hundred speakers at the Forum.

The public appearances of the children of important officials may not only reflect their desire to reach new career heights. They also testify to the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit a competent line-up of prominent speakers for the SPIEF. The «successors» seem to replace the real experts and professionals as best they can, while the Forum itself is rapidly becoming an insider event in every respect, because «outsiders» do not really want to have anything to do with it.

Post-election sacking

The governor of the Samara region, Dmitry Azarov, resigned after less than a year in office, having won a re-election (with over 80% of the vote). In recent months, the regional leader and his entourage have been subjected to regular media and power attacks, which did not stop during the presidential election campaign, the time when elites usually take a break from power struggles. Samara Oblast is quite an attractive region for influential groups. It is home to large industrial enterprises, oil refineries, and the population of the regional centre of Samara is more than a million people strong, which is of interest to construction companies. Usually, such territories are run by representatives of influential federal clans, but Dmitry Azarov can hardly be described as such. The former mayor of Samara was on good terms with the Rostec group, where he got a job after leaving office, but he cannot be regarded a direct protégé of the state corporation and its head, Sergei Chemezov. Azarov was closest to the local company Volgopromgaz, which has serious influence at the regional level but limited opportunities at the federal level. The governor of an attractive region without serious cover in any of the clans in Putin’s close circle proved an equally attractive target for attack.

The main media battering ram for Azarov was a «United Russia» party MP Alexander Khinshtein, who was elected to the Duma from the Samara region. Khinshtein is seen as close to the head of the Rosgvardiya, Viktor Zolotov. This influential law enforcer’s group has a history of regional expansion: Putin’s former security guards (Zolotov was a long-time head of the Federal Protective Service or FSO) used to be governors in the Tula, Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad regions. It is quite possible that this clan could have taken an interest in the resource-rich Samara region, with a head who was weak in the eyes of his patron. In any case, Vladimir Fedorishchev, an official close to this group who worked as a deputy to its important representative, Putin’s aide Alexey Dyumin, at the time when Dyumin was the governor of the Tula region, became the region’s acting head. At the same time, Fedorishchev also has ties to Rostec, which has one of its major assets — the AvtoVAZ automobile factory — in the Samara Region: the Tula Region also has many of the state corporation’s production facilities in the military-industrial complex.

Azarov’s resignation is a sign that the Kremlin has stopped giving governors clear guarantees of immunity in the form of re-election. Previously, winning an election gave the incumbent the opportunity to serve for at least a couple or three years, except in the most notable cases of corruption. The promise of re-election of the incumbent head allowed local and federal groups to plan their actions in the region for several years ahead, to reach agreements between themselves and the regional authorities. Azarov’s dismissal shows that it is now very risky to engage in strategic and even tactical planning in the regions. The Kremlin may even sack a governor who has just been re-elected with record results, meaning that all previous agreements will have to be renegotiated with the new head. The ambitions and squabbles of powerful groups are increasingly beginning to influence personnel policy at both the regional and federal levels (Sergei Shoigu’s dismissal as Defence Minister is a case in point). As a result of these conflicts, the Kremlin is increasingly losing its leading role and becoming subordinate, merely reacting to the actions of other, increasingly independent actors. These processes will inevitably affect the stability of the power vertical, whose participants still rely on the rules and arbitration of the country’s top leadership.

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