When Putin became President, the Deep State expanded into politics and economics, both on a governmental level and into state-related companies.
What precisely does President Vladimir Putin want to do for the remainder of his life? Does he want to slow down into semi-retirement in 2024 at the age of 72, allowing him to spend time with his grandchildren and his reported three young children with 36-year-old gymnast Alina Kabaeva? Or does he want to continue full time in order to retain a firm hold on the reins of power? Only last month Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Kremlin’s media mouthpiece, Russia Today, shed some light on this question: “If anyone was wondering whether the Boss (Putin) plans to go for one more presidential term, he doesn’t”! So that’s clear, isn’t it?
Well not exactly.
Simonyan’s message on Telegram followed hot on the heels of Putin’s January address to the Duma when he said, “In the long term, society must be guaranteed regular renewal at the top. We have a lot more good to do before 2024, at which point things will be clear.” At the time, Kremlin watchers concluded that this signalled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the Presidency to Parliament. A change of President would therefore occur in 2024, as the current Constitution forbids Putin from running again.
To everyone’s surprise, in his address to the Lower House of Parliament on 10 March, President Putin set the cat among the pigeons. He hinted that the Constitution could be changed to allow him to “reset the clock to zero” in 2024 and therefore seek a further two six-year terms as President, at the end of which he would be 84! To avoid any accusation of gerrymandering, this proposal would be put to Parliament for approval, be considered by the Constitutional Court, and finally put to the electorate for its blessing.
In super-quick time, the Kremlin announced last week that Putin had signed off on the changes after they were unsurprisingly passed with huge majorities by both Houses of Parliament. Just three days later, the Court moved fast to approve the amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power, should he so wish, for another 16 years.
Only in autocratic Russia could a major Constitutional change take a mere six days to jump through all the procedural hoops. But as the Court is dominated by the Kremlin and its judges controlled by the Putin administration, the ruling was unsurprising. Final approval will come if more than half the country’s voters support it in a nationwide vote scheduled for 22 April. Although the changes have appalled Russian liberal society, they have been largely met with a shrug by most Russians, who believe they are out of their control.
This apparent volte-face by the Kremlin is unusual and begs the question why? Is this some kind of Machiavellian ploy by Putin to keep everyone guessing about his true intentions? Or is it a genuine change of mind brought about by external pressures following his announcement in January? There were certainly rumblings from Russia’s Deep State in February, alarmed at the potential loss of its patron in 2024. In Russia, the Deep State holds significant influence over the President.
Russia’s Deep State existed before Vladimir Putin came to power when previously it was confined to a small elite in the Communist Party. When he became President, the Deep State expanded into politics and economics, both on a governmental level and into state-related companies. Nowadays the Deep State is largely occupied by the Siloviki, a term derived from “silovye struktury”, or “force structures”. In real terms, Siloviki means an official from the intelligence agencies, armed forces or the law enforcement agencies. Today the vast majority of the Siloviki are ex-KGB (now FSB) officers. Don’t just take my word, listen to Prime Minister Putin in late 1999, just before he became President. He was the principal guest at a party at the Lubyanka in Moscow to celebrate the founding of the Cheka, Lenin’s political police and forerunner of the KGB. Proposing the toast he said, “Dear comrades, I can report that the group of agents you sent to infiltrate the government has accomplished the first part of its mission”. And who was the leader of this group of agents being congratulated by Putin? None other than Putin himself!
When Vladimir Putin became President of Russia at the turn of the century, observers marvelled at the speed of his ascent. Arriving in the Kremlin in June 1996 after losing his job in St Petersburg, in just three years he had risen to become Prime Minister and then to Acting President on 31 December 1999. While few would doubt his intelligence, energy and acumen, many believe that his principal qualification for the job was being a former KGB/FSB officer. The Siloviki now had their own man at the top and their influence quickly expanded. In her 2006 report, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a director at the Russian Academy of Science, claimed that 78% of Russia’s elite filling top government jobs and running huge industrial and commercial enterprises were Siloviki. As one might expect in a group with roots in the secret police and intelligence services, members place great emphasis on obeying superiors, showing strong loyalty to one another and preserving strict discipline. This generates the feeling of being superior to the rest of the populace and of being the rightful bosses of everyone else. It also generates corruption.
Russia is well known to be a corrupt country. In its 2019 corruption index, Transparency International ranked Russia at 137 out of 180 in the world, only 43 places above Somalia, judged to be the world’s most corrupt state. President Putin himself is no stranger to charges of corruption. Many Russians wonder how he allegedly became one of the richest people in the world, reputed to be worth at least $70 billion, when his 2018 declared salary was only $131,000. Perhaps the answer lies in the opportunities provided by his political career path, starting in St Petersburg.
In the early 1990s, at a time when St Petersburg was experiencing food shortages, Putin was deputy mayor and head of the city’s external economic relations committee, a position to which he had risen without trace. The Berlin Wall had recently collapsed and he had been forced to beat a hasty retreat from his position as a KGB Colonel in Dresden, East Germany. A scandal erupted about an alleged multimillion-dollar kickback scheme in which millions of dollars’ worth of raw materials were shipped abroad from St Petersburg in return for food shipments that never arrived. The report on the scandal by St Petersburg lawmaker Marina Salye, long scrubbed from official websites, called for Putin and his deputy to be fired for complicity. This would be the first of a series of scandals covering Vladimir Putin, many of them laid out in reports alleging involvement or complicity in crimes of embezzlement, corruption or even poisoning. Many of the reports’ authors, such as Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, were later found murdered. The message was clear.
A recent addition to Russia’s Deep State is a group of those who have made their careers and profited from the 20 years of Putin’s presidency, known as “Putin’s children”. Many are literally the children of the current elite, mostly long-term friends of Putin, and have now taken top jobs in government and business. All are billionaires and wield enormous influence at the highest echelon, benefitting hugely from Putin’s patronage. Together with the Siloviki, they became extremely alarmed by their patron’s announcement in January to step down in 2024, with the potential loss of their fortunes and power. By standing down Putin will lose control, as would the Deep State. There is no obvious successor who could maintain the status quo, so the only solution was to persuade Putin to stay on, which after a month of persistent lobbying by the Deep State he agreed to do. After all, continuity and stability are what Russian’s yearn for, regardless of countrywide corruption.
And so does Russia’s Deep State.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.