Putin’s Labyrinth: Career Stagnation in Russia’s Corridors of Power

After the parliamentarian elections this time the usual upward mobility switches in the elite are conspicuously absent. The path of career progression within the power vertical has stopped being predictable, and has turned into a labyrinth with no windows of opportunity offered by reshuffles, says political analist Andrey Pertsev for Carnegie Moscow. Putin stopped the carroussel. It is total stagnation. This never bodes well in politics. 

2018 inauguration of vladimir putin 48Putin's last inauguration (picture Kremlin)

by Andrey Pertsev

Enough time has passed since September’s State Duma elections to be able to say with confidence that unlike previous elections, they have not led to any noticeable reshuffles within the Russian regime.

Regional governors who were predicted to be on course for a promotion to Moscow have remained in their posts for another term. Vyacheslav Volodin is still the speaker of the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, while the Federation Council, the upper chamber, is preparing to pass a bill that will remove the limits on the number of terms regional heads can serve.

There are plenty of high-profile officials who will be impacted by this new legislation, including Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov, whose second terms will end in 2023, as well as Tatarstan’s leader Rustam Minnikhanov (2025) and the notorious head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov (2026). Now they can stay in their posts beyond those dates, and the Kremlin does not have to worry about what role to put Sobyanin in next, or who the next mayor of Moscow should be.

The Kremlin’s new staffing policy appears to be: the fewer replacements and reshuffles, the better. Previously, the Russian power vertical followed a clear cycle. Key players knew when they could try to lobby for their own advancement or that of their representative to a particular post, or ask for a certain kind of compensation if they had not received the post they wanted. Now, those roles don’t seem to apply.

Checks and balances

State Duma elections were once an opportunity to rearrange high-profile politicians or representatives of respected bodies within the system. This temporary certainty was one of the main rules in the way the system of checks and balances worked, and made it possible to start talks and negotiations in advance. It made the system predictable and set horizons.

The same could be said of limiting the number of terms that governors could serve. That rule set the timelines for searching for successors and agreeing them with the main interested parties. It also had the effect of not allowing governors to become too powerful: it precluded the emergence of another Yury Luzhkov (the late, all-powerful former Moscow mayor) who might impose their own rules and order on specific regions.

For a long time, the foundation of President Vladimir Putin’s power vertical was the regular redistribution of positions and resources. Groups within the ruling elite always had hopes of increasing their influence in the next cycle. Now there will be no point in waiting for the next cycle.

sobjanin corona kliniekMoscow's mayor (third from left), here speaking about corona, can stay on for ever (picture Moscow municipality)

Just five years ago, it was all change within the system. Putin’s bodyguards were being made regional governors, with the apparent aim of them gaining managerial experience to enable them to go on to ministerial offices. The same was said of the young technocrats. They were, as a rule, deputies for federal ministers (at the same time as representing lobby groups) who became governors, with the potential for further growth. The hope of a reshuffle gave those inside the power vertical at least some vision of the future. It provided them with an incentive to keep moving forward and to try to influence that future.

At some point, however, personnel decisions began to stall. One of the first examples of this was in 2018, when contrary to expectations, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), was not appointed speaker of the Federation Council. He had been expected to replace Valentina Matviyenko, who apparently wanted to retire. At first it was believed that the appointment had simply been postponed because of a controversial article in Kommersant newspaper announcing it. Yet several years later, Matviyenko is still in her post.

Trend of conservation

This year, officials who were expected to move posts but ended up running for second terms include Tver Governor Igor Rudenya and Tula Governor Alexei Dyumin, one of Putin’s former bodyguards. Meanwhile, Anton Vaino, Putin’s chief of staff, holds the record for the longest time spent in the position. It was expected that the State Duma elections would restart the stalled process of career progression, but so far, the trend of conservation remains.

Under the unwritten rules of the Russian power vertical, when officials stepped down from a job they had performed satisfactorily, they were offered a new position that carried at least as much influence as the previous role, if not more. But in recent years, the number of those people has far exceeded the influential positions available.

Vorobyov and Minnikhanov — and especially Sobyanin — will all require very senior posts once they step down. Instead of getting bogged down in complex internal bargaining, the Kremlin has chosen to preserve the status quo. The problem is that even this solution still makes losers of those who aspired to succeed the incumbents: there were rumors, for example, that the position of Moscow mayor had been promised to First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko.

The flaws of this approach are plain to see, but they are ignored because it works for the president: this way, he can avoid making difficult decisions, or at least put them off, and remain on the sidelines of complex negotiations and bargaining within his inner circle.

Presidential election in 2024

The reason for Putin’s reluctance to take action lies in the upcoming presidential election in 2024. Putin has already said that he does not want to give a false start to the power transition in order to prevent those around him from looking around for a successor. Leaving people in the same jobs should preclude any talk of the power transition. With no movement of personnel, no one can be tipped as Putin’s successor, nor can there be talk of the rise or fall of any one group.

People with their eyes on more important posts are losing hope and motivation, so the power vertical is losing its internal energy

Yet this career stagnation is not good for the overall system. Those working within it no longer understand when to start lobbying or talks; there is nothing to guide them anymore, no timeframes. Putin has broken the compass that the elites were using to find their way. Accordingly, various groups and individuals with their eyes on more important posts are losing hope and motivation, meaning the power vertical is losing its internal energy. At the same time, there is no guarantee that the status quo will continue. The president may be able to put off making decisions, but he can’t stop making them altogether.

The path of career progression within the power vertical has stopped being predictable, and has turned into a labyrinth with no windows of opportunity offered by reshuffles. Putin has built this labyrinth to ensure that those members of the elite — and observers — casting around for a successor get lost in the intricate layout of its corridors. But the longer the backlog of appointments and the more decisions are put off, the more obvious the head of state’s efforts to cover up any signs of the power transition. After all, if the president is doing everything he can to demonstrate his antipathy for the transition, that means he must be planning something. The labyrinth is starting to close in on its own architect.

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