Staunton, November 14 – Some Moscow commentators say that sanctions and the worsening condition of the Russian economy is creating a Hobbesian world within the Russian elites around Putin, with some arguing the Kremlin leader must move toward an open dictatorship and others suggesting “a shadow government” is already taking shape.
Obviously, such notions are speculative, the product of the absence of reliable information about what in fact is going on inside the Kremlin and a proclivity for conspiracy theories among many in the Russian capital. But such speculations are themselves an indication of what people are thinking and thus have a life of their own even if they are not realized.
An article in Znak.com argues that as a result the economic crisis, ever more people around Putin are “suddenly beginning to have doubts about the all-powerful nature of Vladimir Putin” and thus are beginning to engage in “a war of all against all” on the principle that “you die today; I’ll live until tomorrow” (znak.com/moscow/articles/11-11-20-37/103196.html).
People close to Putin who have escaped criticism now are being attacked, it says, noting that last week, pro-Donbas demonstrators denounced Vladislav Surkov for failing to back the insurgency in Ukraine, saying that he is “a Chechen Jew who is afraid of the triumph of the Russian Orthodox faith.” And doctors are denouncing Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin for his plans to close hospitals.
Znak.com’s sources who it says are close to the Presidential Administration say that “the elites are not conducting any single game” but rather struggling to get their share of what are “sharply reduced resources,” all the more so because “there is the sense,” the source adds, “that Putin has paused,” something that makes many around him nervous about the future.
Valery Solovey of MGIMO says that “two factors define the situation: the reduction in the amount of resources and a lack of appreciation of where the bottom will be and where the possibility of stopping the slide will arise.” Many fear that the future “will be worse than now,” and they are struggling.
The critical moment will come, he suggests, if it appears Putin is losing his hold on the population. At present, only he has that capacity while others control specific institutions. “If the elite sees that society has ceased to trust Putin in an unqualified way,” Solovey concludes, “then it will begin to reflect upon what to do in 2018 in a serious way.”
Two less measured comments have also surfaced this week. Nationalist commentator Maksim Kalashnikov says that he is hearing about discussions in the Kremlin about the need for Putin to move forcefully toward the creation of a personal dictatorship, but he expresses his fear that Putin will rely on the oligarchs and the bureaucracy rather than basing it on his personal ties with the population (forum-msk.org/material/politic/10576536.html).
And Argumenti.ru this week says it has evidence that “in the highest political echelons of the country the idea of establishing a second ‘shadow’ government are now being discussed. Most probably, it will be formed in the Security Council” as a political balancing structure to hold things together (argumenti.ru/politics/n463/376252).
One official familiar with such plans told the news service anonymously that “to call it ‘a shadow’ government is not entirely correct. More precisely, it is a government of national salvation, or a senior council of expert advisors attached to the president.” It will have a broad range of tasks, fully “comparable with those of the real government.”
Whether anything comes of either or both of these, of course, remains to be seen. But discussions of such things, something Russians had avoided when oil prices and Putin were both riding high, tell a story of their own – and one that may become increasingly important as the price of oil and the exchange rate of the ruble continue to fall.