Putin’s next generation



For all the Yeltsin and Putin years there has been one truism, so obvious that to say it seems trite – the Soviet Union is gone, but Soviet bureaucrats remain. This has begun to change. Putin’s state is quietly being transformed by the inescapable logic of generational change.

The last generation fully formed by the USSR are the same age as Putin and his inner circle. They are getting old, especially for Russia. Here, heavy drinking, heavy smoking and post-Soviet stress have led to male life expectancy falling to just 59. The 60 year old “national leader" has been sick, and for about a month has refused to travel. Sergey Lavrov the 62 year old foreign minister "had an accident” during his recent visit to Istanbul and needed to be hospitalised. The official story is he had a sports injury. The unofficial story is that Lavrov had an old man’s “fall.” Recent photographs of the Kremlin chief of staff Sergey Ivanov, who turns 60 next month and is the man in charge of Russia’s current chairmanship of the G-20, painfully illustrate these men are getting on. 

Who are the Kremlin’s next generation?

Putin refused to go. But we are at the beginning of one huge, inevitable, transition inside his state. The last of the Soviet bureucrats, trained and formed in the USSR, have started to give way to a new generation of officials made by the Putin era itself. This will take a decade or more to work itself out, but is already worrying policymakers. “Our main problem,” said Dmitry Polikanov, the former deputy head of the United Russia party and now Kremlin official, “is good quality cadres, getting real professional people.”

The new up and coming generation are not authoritarian paper-pushers, nostalgic for Brezhnev. They are half Moscow business types - creatures of oil trading, corporate boards and PR, who grew up working for oligarchs; the other half are men that grew up in the Putinist youth groups Nashi and the Young Guard - thuggish propagandists taught to celebrate the leader’s birthday and harass Western diplomats. We may one day miss the much-maligned Soviet bureaucrat, as neither of these new breeds are real civil servants.

The split personality of tomorrow’s Russia can be seen in two rising stars: the businessmen turned star-minister Mikhail Abyzov and the Nashi-tough turned head of the Federal Youth Agency, Sergey Belokonev.

Mikhail Abyzov

The 40 year old Abyzov, worth $1.3 billion, is the prototype new “business bureaucrat.” His natural habitat is a mixture of investor conferences, panel discussions, and exclusive airport lounges, rather than simply the stuffy corridors of power (and certainly not the cubicles of KGB headquarters, let alone the drafty barracks of the Red Army). The self-made tycoon, who rose from selling imported Bulgarian food from his dorm at Moscow State University, is a titan of the sub-contracting industry. He also made money in the road building industry (no sector in Russia is more notorious for kickbacks).

These are the kind of people who were pushing for Medvedev to remain as President and for Putin not to return. It made business sense for them. For them “modernisation” sounded good, and not just as PR. A weaker leader, especially one who understand business a bit better, would only enhance their influence.  Abyzov is one of Medvedev’s closest allies, having headed the “supporters of Dmitry Medvedev committee.” Just because Putin is back does not mean this tendency is dead or truly defeated. It is, rather, dormant.

Critics accuse these “business bureucrats” of being all spin and no substance. Tellingly, Abyzov is now Medvedev’s minister for the “Open Government,” a vague consultative chamber designed to entrap the very best Russian experts, business-brains and civic leaders into open-ended “dialogue.” Even his supporters say it doesn’t amount to much, whilst his enemies say he doesn’t care, and is only in government for the money.

Sergey Belokonev

The other face of the future is Sergey Belokonev, the 35 year old head of the Federal Youth Agency. The Nashi tough is a pure product of the hysterical propaganda whipped up by the Kremlin to ward off any “orange revolution” in Moscow in the mid-2000s. His first job was heading the prototype Nashi style-movement “Walking Together” in St. Petersburg. It harassed the country’s leading writers and gathered “anti-Russian” books before dynamiting them in an open-air papier-mâché toilet. The group was folded after it fell into disrepute (members of its St. Petersburg branch were found to be peddling pornography). Belokonev bounced back with Nashi and became one of its driving forces. He organised the boozy “Seliger” camps where riotous nationalist sing-alongs, guest lectures by Putin, and encouragements to “reproduce for Russia” were the order of the day. His biggest break of all was when he was charged with promoting the vague (to the point of being meaningless) ideology of “sovereign democracy”, which argued Russia was not evolving into a liberal, western democracy but something of its own choosing.

The older “Soviet bureaucrats” and the “business bureaucrats” despise men like Belokonev as charmless, intimidating thugs. They are irritated that many Naschists have been promoted, seemingly to inspire young Russians to join Putinist youth-groups. They are now dotted around in influential positions in the Duma, the regions and the Kremlin itself. Once a street phenomenon, they are now a small, but still important, bureaucratic phenomenon. So alarming did the implications of this “ideology” sound, even Medvedev once criticised it, suggesting that “if you take the word democracy and stat attaching qualifiers to it that would seem a little odd.”

In person the head of the Federal Youth Agency, also a law maker, has the diction of a footballer and uses the kind of slang impossible to try and translate without publishing obscenities. After a personal meeting with him it is hard not to disagree with his bad reputation.  Belokonev made it very clear he was asking the questions.

“So are you really a spy?”

“Are you really a 100% English? There are lots of people like you Yudish-kin that come to Russia, and hop… after a few generations they say they are Russians…”

“Don’t you know Anglo-America are the two sides of the same hand that have always been against Russia… But not Germany. Germany and us… we are real Eurasian countries.”

Those were the more sensible comments. He cracked his knuckles and did everything to make me feel smaller than him in a dingy Asian fast food chain restaurant around the back of the Duma.

“You know that the Kurile Islands are ours, and that the Ainu who live in our Sakhalin are ours, and that means because there are Ainu in Hokkaido in Northern Japan, Russia could claim that too?”

“So are you a spy?”

“Why are you looking so nervous?”

“There’s no need to be afraid of Putinism, the whole thing’s just an economic project… mate.”

The chain-smoking senior official Vladislav Surkov, a trained theatre director-turned PR agent, was the man ultimately responsible for inventing Nashi in the 2000s. Like most people in the Kremlin he was old enough to know how humiliating it was to live in the suffocating, boring, empty-shelved USSR. “It was like throwing off an enormous parasite,” he once remarked of its unraveling. Yet the irony is that Surkov has created with Nashi a new generation that never experienced it as adults. They only see it as a vanished superpower.   

Gerontocracy vs. Unprofessionalism

The Russian state will be defined by how it responds to this “generation crisis” in the bureaucracy. It amounts to nothing less than a crisis of the bureaucracy. The Kremlin risks ossifying into a gerontocracy at its top-ranks, whilst degenerating into unprofessionalism at its lower levels. Putin has made moves to ensure this happens, recently introducing legislation that would allow officials to serve not until 65 but 70 years of age. The obvious conclusion is that he does not want to retire his allies serving in key positions in the years ahead.

Yet for those posts deemed non-essential for Putin, even many in Medvedev’s government, the changed has already started. The average age of ministers in the government is 46, meaning no professional experience under Brezhnev’s “real socialism.”

Those that really know what they are talking about, like Alexey Kudrin, Putin’s former long-serving finance minister, are worried about elite cohesion. At the beginning of this regime, the old Soviet nomenklatura was half in existence – there was still caste loyalty amongst the FSB and the bureaucracy was standard issue. No longer. In an open letter published on December 4th 2012 warning the unnamed “power” in the land to change course, Kudrin made it clear he fears the likely future:

"Fragmentation - not yet a split in the elite in the full sense of the word, but we have already significant steps in this this direction. Actually the split in the elite is designated to begin only when the real battle for the nomination of the next generations of leaders begins. Given the diversity of interests within the elite, this will not happen without fierce competition, which will be accompanied by secret struggle, then with open competition."

Throughout 2010 and 2011 there were loud tussles behind the Kremlin walls over who would be President in 2012. Putin and Medvedev were never really fighting, but their teams were. This reflected not their presidential ambitions, but lack of bureaucratic cohesion. By returning to the Kremlin, Putin put a stop to these squabbles. Yet he has not solved the problem. Generational change makes it worse, and this worries Moscow. Kudrin has warned Putin he needs to urgently turn the Russian bureaucracy into a “meritocracy.” Unless he does, it looks more and more likely that elite fragmentation will continue, eventually evolving into clashes, and then at point in the inevitable future a split.

Ben Judah’s forthcoming book “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin” will be published by Yale University Press in May 2013. 


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