The Fighting Under the Carpet

From the Economist:

Indeed, it is widely believed that some, including Igor Sechin, the deputy chief of staff in the Kremlin and the informal leader of the siloviki, the clan of former KGB men, urged him to make such a change. With little prodding, parliament would have amended the constitution and two-thirds of the country would have supported it. The West, after some grumbling, would have come to terms with it. Deciphering Mr Putin’s real motives is a murky business, as much a matter of psychoanalysis as of political interpretation. It is possible that until recently Mr Putin genuinely wanted to leave the Kremlin and become an international figure bathing in luxury and respect. Staying on might have turned him into a hostage to those seeking to protect their financial interests. As one Yeltsin-era oligarch put it: “You stay for the third term—you may never leave.”

If so, why the change of heart? The answer almost certainly lies in the ever more vicious—and open—rivalry among the Kremlin’s political clans. Perhaps Mr Putin upset so many rich and powerful people that the prospect of losing control over the transition of power may simply have been too dangerous for his inner circle, and for himself. For all his talk about foreign threats and domestic enemies, what Mr Putin really fears is his entourage and a war among the clans. Winston Churchill once described the Kremlin’s political tussles as being like a fight among bulldogs under a carpet: outsiders hear plenty of growling but have few clues about the victor’s identity until it emerges.Consider the latest strange noises from beneath the carpet. Two months before the election, a fight broke out among Mr Putin’s men, resulting in the arrest of a general from a drugs-fighting agency accused of tapping the phones of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The arrest prompted an article from the general’s boss, Viktor Cherkesov, one of Mr Putin’s close allies, warning of the fatal danger of a feud within the security agencies, “a war in which there can be no winners”.A few weeks later, the deputy finance minister, Sergei Storchak, was arrested on embezzlement charges. Kremlinologists are confident that the arrest was aimed at Alexei Kudrin, the liberal finance minister, recently elevated by Mr Putin. Mr Kudrin’s plea to see his deputy and let him out on bail was ignored.Then, just two days before the election, a page-long interview was published in a mainstream business newspaper, Kommersant. In it, a fund manager, Oleg Shvartsman, claimed that his $3.2 billion fund was “closely connected” to the Kremlin’s administration and security services. He talked of a “velvet reprivatisation” which involved “voluntary-coercive” methods. He told Kommersant he reported indirectly to Mr Sechin, who also chairs the Rosneft oil company. Mr Shvartsman later said his words had been distorted, but the newspaper stands by its story.Some say the candid interview was aimed at Mr Sechin; others suggest it was his own warning “salvo”. Either way, it was serious enough for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to pull out of creating a Russian venture-capital fund with Mr Shvartsman. Anatoly Chubais, the powerful head of the electricity monopoly, said that “intentionally or not, Mr Shvartsman told the truth”.Caught in his own system, Mr Putin seems to have decided he could not rely on any of the factions. All he could do, says Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, was to appeal directly to the nation. This is why he turned the parliamentary election into a display of his own power. It is not the Russian people, or the outside world, who needed convincing of his strength, but his own elites. Whether they heed Mr Putin will become clear in the next few weeks, when he names his chosen successor.