by Andrew Monaghan
Vladimir Putin is the focus of attention in Russian politics. He is the setter of policy guidelines the final decision-maker, and the manager of factional conflicts.
For a clearer insight into how Russian politics works, however, this focus on President Putin is too narrow. It overemphasizes the dependence of the system on one man, and draws attention away from the roles played by other senior figures and the emergence of new people.
Three groups in particular need to be examined to see the exercise of leadership in its wider context: those who are 'trusted comrades'; those who are 'executives'; and those 'on the way up', who are being tested for high office.
Putin's core leadership team is formed of a dozen people, many of whom have worked with him since the early 1990s. At the heart of this team are four men whom Putin has named as 'trusted comrades'. All were born or educated in
The fourth, economist
Beneath this core team, there have been subtle changes in the power structure recently. Most attention has been on how authorities responded to the protests in late 2011 and early 2012 at irregularities in the legislative and parliamentary elections.
In fact, the leadership team began these changes earlier, in response to the poor performance of the United Russia party in the regional elections of spring 2011, by trying to reinvigorate the 'vertical of power', Putin's concept of centralized authority in the Kremlin.
A number of officials were dispatched to the regions to act as 'federal locomotives', to reinforce local party structures and improve the implementation of executive orders.
Igor Sechin is perhaps the most important member of this group, which might be called the 'executives'. Sechin, 52, was dispatched to lead the United Russia party list in Stavropol in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in
Putin believes he is a professional and effective operator, and so he is now at the heart of the Kremlin's two main policy offensives since the elections as Putin faces the challenges of domestic protest and a weakening economy. He is involved in the campaign to ensure that Putin's orders are carried out, known as 'enhancing the effectiveness of the implementation of instructions', and he has a leading role in the anti-corruption campaign, particularly in investigating state companies.
The key figure in that campaign is another 'executive', Alexander Bastrykin, 60, also a St Petersburger, and former classmate of Putin in the
Another aspect of this reinvigoration is the slow rotation of senior figures since late 2011, illustrated by the appointment of
Promotion to the leadership is often a slow process: it is rare that a new face simply emerges. The third group, often overlooked by commentators, are the people being tried out for high office. Those who join the team are carefully selected, and often tested before further promotion -- and those appointed have proved themselves to be loyal and effective operators in party and regional administrations.
A good example is
Similarly, Alexander Khloponin, 48, formerly an effective governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai in
Someone to watch for the future might be the 43-year-old
The internal workings of Russian politics are complex and murky, dominated by patronage and opaque informal networks and shrouded in a fog of speculation.
Orthodoxy holds that there is stasis in the Kremlin. On the one hand, this inertia is seen to be generational -- 'Generation Putin', the last of the Soviets. But undercurrents of change exist, and more attention should be paid to the way the leadership shapes the evolution of the team, both in terms of how to enhance authority and effectiveness, and by bringing in younger personnel at lower levels. It is from here that, in time, replacements are most likely to come, even, in the end, for Putin.
Departures from the ruling group are comparatively rare given the overall stability, but they may become more frequent as the team evolves and dispenses with those who have outlived their usefulness.
This is perhaps the way to interpret the resignation in May of
Trying to predict Russian politics with any degree of precision is a fool's errand. But those who watch
Attention to these backstories -- knowing who has been effective, what they have done, and who they have worked with -- will help understanding of how Russian politics is evolving.