By Paul Goble
Some members of the Russian opposition and many analysts in the West have been on the lookout for splits among the Russian elite over Ukraine that might become the basis for a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s policies or even rule, Vladimir Gelman points out.
But such attention while perhaps understandable given the impotence of the opposition, the political scientist at St. Petersburg’s European University says, is misplaced at least for now because “there is no reason to expect a split among the Russian elites in the foreseeable future” (ridl.io/ru/raskola-elit-ne-budet/).
Gelman points out that “not all autocracies are the same” and that only those which have some form of collective leadership offer a chance for a stable opposition within the elite to emerge. But such “collective leadership Is not typical of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, including the Russian one.”
In Russia today, he continues, “there are no mechanisms for collective decision-making at the level of the country’s leadership today, and meetings with top officials look more like a demonstration of their approval of decisions made unilaterally by the head of state” than any kind of decision-making agency.
Given this arrangement, the mechanisms of governing Russia now “resemble a kind of solar system where individual planets follow different orbits, more or less distant from the single celestial body. No split is possible within such a system: an individual planet may depart from its orbit, but collective action by the planets against the celestial body is hardly possible.”
After all, “a split implies that different segments of the elites are cooperating with one another,” Gelman says. “In the Russian case, however, no regular cooperation let alone cooperation based on common political views is possible.” Members of the elite may come together only on an ad hoc basis and Putin can use divide-and-rule tactics against them.
This is not to say that all Russian elites unconditionally back Putin’s military invasion. On the contrary, there are widespread reports of their discontent … But such dissent is subtle” rather than organized and “most importantly, there is an enormous gap between individual dissent and collective action.”
Gelman continues: “Just as ordinary Russians who disapprove of ‘the special military operation’ are not much inclined to engage in collective protest given reprisals from the state, so too elites are not inclined to risk their positions and take any collective action against Putin” and his rule.
“From their point of view, individual risks associated with the threat of punishment for disloyalty clearly outweigh all the collective costs incurred by the elites due to Russian military aggression,” and therefore, “the elites have grounds to doubt that collective action can bring about the change they may desire.”
What this means, Gelman says, is that “while members of the opposition may make Leninist calls for the defeat of their own government and cooperation with the enemy, ruling elites find such tactics unacceptable. The chances of organized collective action by Russian elites against ‘the special military operation’ are thus extremely small and doomed to remain so.”