Russia: Re-exerting its dominance

At this time of year, my professional commitments are light, so I sign up for a number of short courses at the City Lit further education college in central London. My fifth such course of this summer was delivered by a lecturer called Robert Behan and it was titled “Russia: Re-exerting its dominance”.

The course involves two lectures: one on the domestic situation and the second on the international context.

We began the first course with a reminder of how Putin had come to power. When Boris Yeltsin was at the nadir of his popularity, he arranged to sell state assets at knock-down prices to a set of oligarchs who agreed in return to back his re-election. Subsequently these oligarchs exerted considerable influence on government.

Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent from 1975-1991 who rose under Yeltsin’s tenure to become head of the secret service the FSB (successor to the KGB) and then Prime Minister. He was hand-picked by Yeltsin to succeed him as President on the understanding that Yeltsin and his family would escape any prosecution.

So Putin was the Prime Minister from 1999 to 2000, President from 2000 to 2008, again Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, and again President since 2012.

The next part of the course looked at the factions in Putin’s government and our lecturer highlighted four:

  1. The siloviki clan – The Russian word refers to ‘people of force’. It covers Putin’s former comrades from the KGB and key members of the defence and security establishments. This clan has supported a build up of the armed forces and the security services.
  2. The St Petersburg power group – These are people who used to work with Putin when he was at senior levels of the city’s administration from 1990-1996. This group includes Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev and Deputy PM Dimitri Kozak.
  3. The oligarchs – In fact, as soon as he became President, Putin started a programme to tame the oligarchs and limit their political involvement. A key tactic was the imprisonment of Mikkail Khordokovsky.
  4. The power vertical – This refers to the centralisation of power in the Kremlin. Elections are mere “electoral events” with United Russia a pliant supporter of Putin and limited tolerance of other political parties. Gubernatorial elections were abolished in 2006, so that now all state governors are appointed by the President. Most of the media is state-owned and there are tight restrictions on the Internet.

Such is Putin’s absolute grip on power in Russia that our lecturer opined that, if Putin was to go, “there would be absolute chaos”.

You can read my “Short Guide To The Russian Political System” here.


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