Kremlinology vs. sociology of elites

Today I attended another Kennan Institute event: Reassessing Russia’s Decision Making Community: Intra-elite Conflicts, Political and Business Networks, and Ideological Constructions, with Marlene Laruelle, Senior Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Studies Program, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center.

Below is my summary of the event, which sounds a bit formal – because it was written for work purposes – but which I wanted to share anyway, because this brave Frenchwoman said interesting things with cute French accent. Seriously though, I really enjoyed this event because I liked how she wrapped the study of the Russian political elite in philosophical rhetoric (she said “narrative” like 15 times, and I loved it every single time). (Sadly, there is almost no philosophy left in my notes, so just add the word “narrative” as you see fit. Just kidding.)

Ms. Laruelle shared her perspective on the Russian decision-making community. She pointed out that the topic is especially important now as we are nearing the 2012 presidential elections in Russia. Ms. Laruelle started by noting that the analysis of Russia’s ruling elite, collectively called “the Kremlin”, in terms of clans is widespread; however, she argued, such analysis tends to be a bit one-sided and overly “black-and-white”, whereas a more comprehensive, nuanced framework is needed.

Instead of the so-called “Kremlinology”, or the analysis of Russia’s decision-making community in terms of clans, Ms. Laruelle proposed an approach called “sociology of elites”. One of the problems with “Kremlinology”, Ms. Laruelle argued, is that such analysis often ascribes to political personas certain goals that might not be their goals in reality, which makes assessing the behaviour of such personas reactive instead of proactive. The main features of “sociology of elites”, according to Ms. Laruelle, are as follows:

  • Flexibility, meaning that the predominant structure of the decision-making community is comprised not of clans, but rather of networks that are intertwined and interrelated;
  • Informality, which underscores the importance of informal rather than formal relationships, such as solidarity of education, solidarity of region, economic interest, or spousal relations, all of which often determine the placement of individuals in certain networks;
  • Multiplicity, which means that one person can belong to several networks at once;
  • Uncertainty, which means that the lines of division between networks are unknown.

Ms. Laruelle also pointed out that, contrary to the popular view, President Medvedev does have an extensive network of connections, including connections related to the Skolkovo project, Gazprom company, business and economic world, energy circles, nanotechnology industry, and think-tanks, including the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR). However, this updated model of Russia’s decision-making community leaves the question of power open, Ms. Laruelle noted – it is not clear who has more power: a person with a diversified network, like Medvedev, or someone with a less diversified, but more solid network, like Putin. Putin’s inner circle, Ms. Laruelle argued, is relatively small and includes only a handful of people: Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, politician Sergey Ivanov, and President Medvedev. According to Ms. Laruelle, Putin’s inner circle is characterized by the following:

  • “Division of labour”, meaning that each person in Putin’s inner circle is responsible for one specific area of expertise;
  • Tensions in the inner circle do not necessarily mean rupture of the system;
  • The current system prefers a risk of stagnation to a risk of destabilization;
  • Erosion of Putin’s personal authority.

The question of consensus between elites is a difficult one, Ms. Laruelle pointed out, noting that there are “three pillars” of intra-elite consensus, namely:

  1. International autonomy of Russia;
  2. Domestic stability;
  3. Financial autonomy.

Ms. Laruelle argued that, while some disagreements on those issues are possible without threatening the system, it is also possible that stronger disagreements could lead to conflicts. Among possible areas of such conflicts, Ms. Laruelle singled out the following:

  • Rostekhnologii, where a conflict is possible between Sergey Ivanov and Sergey Chemezov with regard to the military sector;
  • The nuclear sector, where a conflict is possible between the Kovalchuk family, which is close to Putin and FSB, and the Chubays-Kirienko team, which lobbies for Rosatom;
  • The narcotics area, which is problematic as some siloviki (associated with FSB) cover drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

Ms. Laruelle noted that issues on which the ruling elites can be divided are the response to the demographic crisis and the modernization challenge. Among drivers of change, Ms. Laruelle pointed out the so-called “generation issue”, arguing that Russia, unlike, for example, China, lacks a mechanism of financial and political immunity for the former members of elites after they retire, which makes it difficult to have any elite renewal.

Ms. Laruelle also argued that the current system downplays the ideological debate and the importance of ideological differences among the members of the elites. Usually, Ms. Laruelle argued, the ideological debate among Russia’s decision-making community is viewed either overly cynically, implying the absence of such debate, or overly optimistically, implying the possibility of a “democratic overturn” of the system. In reality, Ms. Laruelle argued, the system is not monolithic nor is it strongly divided; there are some ideological variations within the ruling United Russia party. As an example of interdependence between the elites, Ms. Laruelle mentioned a think-tank that is close to United Russia party and is known for its anti-migrant xenophobic stance, which is explained by the fact that the head of the think-tank is a United Russia member who owns chain of supermarket stores 7th Continent, whose goal is to change the pattern of consumption and reduce competition.

Ms. Laruelle concluded her remarks by emphasizing that the following characteristics of the ruling elite have to be studied together in order to obtain the real picture:

  • Informal network;
  • Corporate interest;
  • Ideological views.

During the Questions & Answers session, Ms. Laruelle noted that the Russian Orthodox Church is an important player in the system, which has established itself as a legitimate agent unifying the nation; it has such important connections as Putin and Medvedev’s wife Svetlana. In response to another question, Ms. Laruelle said that the current system is relatively stable and relatively unstable at the same time; the point of the system’s weakness is the absence of institutionalization and reliance on personalities; the elites understand this problem, but they are prevented from fixing it by their reluctance to lose their power, which could happen if some changes to the system are made. In responce to the last question, about the possible mechanisms of joining the elite, Ms. Laruelle noted that an individual usually joins the ruling elite through family connections, his own fortune, and finally, since the current Russian system is a limited meritocracy, one could join it based on his talents.

About Allantoin

A Fierce Russian's Perspective is a blog about the world as seen by a Russian immigrant (yours truly).
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