After the Great Russian Shakeup this past Monday, pundits and analysts added up the personnel scores in the Clan War tournament, and came to pretty much the same happy conclusions: the "liberals" won out; the siloviki lost; the Clan War that characterized the last couple of years of Putin’s power is essentially over; and Putin is the big winner. Investors are cheering. The forces of light have triumphed over the forces of darkness. Hallelujah.
What’s missing from this reading, which relies on the same disastrous good-guys/bad-guys filter that’s warped the West’s understanding of Russia from day one, is an appreciation of exactly how things changed.
The most important things to remember are: 1) The Putin regime has always been ideologically liberal, no matter which Gref, Kudrin, Illarionov or Nabiullina got the Kremlin migalka on a given week; 2) The Clan War ain’t over, it’s just morphing, as it has for decades and will continue to; 3) "Putin strengthened his position"? That’s supposed to be a revelation? Why blow me down!
First, a word about the supposed "liberal-silovik" battle. A couple of weeks ago I was over at Edward Limonov’s apartment, griping about how Russia’s "liberals" like Yavlinsky, Khakamada, Ryzhkov, Nemtsov and the rest were still incapable of going into hard opposition against the Putin regime. I suggested to Limonov that the liberals wouldn’t break clean because on the one hand, they were hoping that the supposedly-liberal Medvedev might offer them a sweet post, and that on the other hand, the liberals weren’t prepared to risk their bourgeois lifestyles in a confrontation with a much stronger power.
"It’s much more simple than that," Limonov said. "The Putin regime is a liberal regime, so it’s natural that liberals like Khakamada or Nemtsov do not seriously oppose it. Just look at Putin’s economic program: Low taxes, concentration of wealth in oligarchs’ hands, strict budgets. The Kremlin’s ideology is basically the same as that of Nemtsov’s and Khakamada’s, so of course it makes no sense to confront them as my organization does. They can only argue over the details of this liberalism, over who should own what and how it should be implemented."
Limonov is right. Even Putin’s crackdown on democracy follows the script for post-Pinochet liberalism, as Naomi Klein brilliantly showed in her book The Shock Doctrine. Just as Georgia’s leader Mikhail Saakashvili is a liberal, even though he sent his shock troops wilding on opposition protestors, exiled his political opponents and shut down the opposition media. All of this talk of "liberals" on the ascendant or on the decline in the Putin Era is nonsense. Liberals are the Putin Era. And so are the siloviki, who still constitute the same 70-percent of the Russian elite today as they did last week, before their supposed decline. The reason they’re in power isn’t because of some deep ideological desire to create a neo-Fascist state, but rather, because that’s who Putin grew up with, and Putin rules a country steeped in clan culture.
And that brings me to the Clan War, and its supposed ending. First, a little history on the whole "Clan" concept in Russian politics. The tendency in Russia to staff your fiefdom—whether it’s your company department, or your Kremlin vertikalny vlast’—with "svoi" or "your people" isn’t something that just started under Putin, despite the Western media’s late discovery. Indeed the same Russian sociologist whom the Western media relied on to unmask the rise of the siloviki under Putin’s term—Olga Kryshtanovskaya—first coined the expression "The St. Petersburg Clan" back in the mid-1990s, when describing Anatoly Chubais’ powerful clan of free-market loyalists. Difference was, Chubais was our guy, so the media completely ignored Kryshtanovskaya’s damning studies of the original all-powerful, ruthless, venal St. Petersburg Clan.