Masha Lipman in Le Monde

Today we’re carrying some exclusive translations of important articles that came out this month in the French daily Le Monde. Here Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center of Moscow debates Putin’s power as an arbitrator (original article accessible here: “Poutine est l’arbitre du système, pas son otage“).

‘Putin is the arbitrator not the hostage to the system’ By Macha Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Foundation, Moscow Center. In Le Monde, January 5, 2007. How does the Russian government work ? As a group, a network? It is a system of connections with internal tension. Most of those who are part of it, come from the Secret services. Others, at a lower level – Ministers, high-ranking civil servants – may be technocrats. What matters is that all the important decisions are made at the Kremlin, mainly constituted by people of the FSB or the City Hall of St Petersburg. They share huge economic interests. Among them, there is a battle of business ambitions. Almost all of them have both a high position in the establishment and in big companies: in energy, exports or aeronautics. What characterizes Russian elites, today, is that they have a grip on both political power and economic property. To have a powerful economic position is nothing if it is not linked to political power. Does Vladimir Putin run the system or the opposite? Vladimir Putin is the only source of power. Not only because he is President, but because he is recognised as the sole arbitrator of conflicts. His power is unique. In the Khodorkovsky case (former CEO of the oil company Yukos, sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for tax fraud), in just ten minutes, Putin got rid of the public prosecutor Vladimir Oustinov, who supported the oligarch, when this decision should have been taken by higher authorities. Nobody dared to question it. He is the decision-maker in conflicts of interests. For instance, the public agencies in charge of resources, taxes, environment, justice, etc, are used by the Kremlin to put pressure on the owners of the companies they are interested in and to ensure their loyalty. In this respect, even if Putin is the result of a closed system, he acts as the puppet master of its members. He is not their hostage, even if in some major conflicts, he may allow himself to be convinced by such or such group to guarantee the general stability of the system. Can the departure of the President, in 2008, change the deal? The main question is not about “who is going to be President” but “who will inherit the arbitration power” and will he be accepted by the members of the system ? Perhaps Putin will want to keep this power for himself. He confirms that he will leave, but he has said several times that he will “keep a title”. Today, he is very popular in the country. What position will remain his ? Some see in him the Russian Deng Xiao-ping. But in Russia, this is not institutionally possible. What is at stake in the succession ? The sharing of the financial “cake”, write some Russians commentators. The major question is how to ensure the stability of a vertical power, where there is only one decision-maker who can actually share the economic wealth. Today, even if groups fight each other over ownership, there is enough for all to benefit from the system. No doubt, they would like Vladimir Putin to keep his power of arbitration. When the whole system depends on one person alone, if differing tensions become too strong, it might collapse. Today, Russia is in an enviable position: its energy power, America’s inertia, and the weakness of Europe but this can change. The price of oil can fall again; conflicts on property can become more serious. Above all, the regime has postponed all the big reforms: on retirement, communal property, health, education. Nothing has been done to adapt the system to the real needs of the Russians. The cumulative effect of all this, can be a destabilisation factor of the regime.