Opposition and The Ruling Class

In a probing and noteworthy article in the Atlantic today, Paul J Saunders considers the role of the elite in the possible transformation of the political landscape in Russia as we begin the year.  Over the past few months, there has been considerable coverage of popular unrest, of street-based protest movements, of the widening of anti-government forces to incorporate a newly politicized middle class.  As far as high political machinations go, analysis has centered around major figures; Putin, naturally, Medvedev, Kudrin, Surkov et al.  What is interesting about Saunders’ analysis is the way in which he dissects the upper, but not upmost, echelons of the elite and posits some ideas as to how they might react to the current trends.  Here is an extract:

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. […]

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.

Read the whole article here.