MOSCOW — In Ukraine, Joe Biden was flaming on. “I don’t think the Russian people understand fully what Putin is doing,” the U.S. vice president said on Tuesday. “That’s why he spends so much time hiding at home the presence of troops here in your country.”
Actually, more Russians than Biden might think understand only too well what their President Vladimir Putin is up to, but Ukraine is not the top of their list of concerns at the moment. Before Ukraine, during Ukraine, and most likely after Ukraine their biggest concern will be corruption inside Russia and, related to that, the fight for reforms.
The majority of Russians agree that Putin should take responsibility for the pervasive financial exploitation in the highest echelons of power. The basic message of last month’s polls by the Levada Center: Putin wants to control everything, so he’s responsible for the bad and the ugly as well as the good. Some 37 percent said he was liable for “the full extent” of the corruption problem, 43 percent blamed him to “a large extent,” and only 3 percent thought Putin could not take responsibility.
Among other highlights of the polls by the Levada Center, an independent non-governmental social research organization: 75 percent of the Russians polled believe that it is time for Moscow to improve relations with Washington.
Now, Putin is no fool, and he’s not deaf to public opinion, but he seems to think he can manipulate it while making few real changes. So there are no signs that the Kremlin is ready to prosecute or even fire top officials involved in high-level corruption. Indeed, standard operating procedure is still to accuse the accuser.
On Monday, prosecutors came to search the studio of Russia’s only independent television channel, Rain TV. “They are looking for some extremist materials,” one of Rain’s reporters told The Daily Beast privately. More likely, they are looking for evidence used against the Kremlin.
Earlier this month independent film makers together with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) showed an investigative documentary film on line exposing Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, his inner circle, and the involvement of his two sons Igor and Artem in dirty business schemes and dealings with murderous organized crime groups.
Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the film was not of much interest to the Kremlin. It’s clear nobody in power seems inclined to follow up on the investigation. And as always there is the fear that the carapace of power, once broken, will let all the guts inside spill out.
“Today, Putin is the most un-free person in Russia,” says pro-Kremlin political analyst Yuri Krupnov, explaining the prosecutor’s actions and the search at the Rain TV studio. "Even if Putin wanted to fire Chaika, he could not because the entire system would fall to pieces. At this time of low oil prices, the Kremlin could not afford that. But in strategic terms, Putin would like to balance tough foreign policy with softer domestic politics.”
OK. But who might change politics in Russia? The liberal opposition is out of the question. Even the most liberal Russians don’t think the opposition has a prayer of winning the next elections. (Such was the opinion of 75 percent of the listeners of Radio Echo of Moscow.)
So any changes, if they’re to come, would be from Russia’s president and his circle.
Last week Putin addressed the country’s key officials, the Federal Assembly, with his annual strategic speech.
After a year that saw Russia at war on two fronts, in Urkaine and Syria, and the isolation of Russia at the UN, by the European Union, and the U.S., with economic sanctions, one could expect from Putin thunder and lightning targeting the West, but the Kremlin’s boss surprised everybody, again.
In his speech, Putin shot a few furious words at Turkey, which shot down one of his warplanes on the Turkish-Syrian frontier: “If people think that after carrying out a cynical war crime, killing our people, they’ll get away with a tomato ban [by Moscow against Turkish produce] or some limits in the construction sector, they’re very wrong,” he said.
Putin added that he knows who in Turkey was “letting terrorists prosper from selling oil.” But other than that, on the domestic front, his tone was unusually soft—and unusually reformist.
Putin was calling to release business from state pressure, he promised to pay social benefits, and he even hinted at a reform of the law enforcement system.
“The most significant news is that Putin did not mention the West, even once,” says Maria Lipman at George Washington University. Neither did he say a word about ”the fifth-column, national traitors, not even Ukraine.”
One of the very few Putin advisers from the so-called “liberal wing” around the Kremlin, Aleksei Kudrin, sounded pleased with what he called the “balanced” strategy for reform.
A few years ago, Kudrin quit the post of vice prime minister because of disagreements with the Kremlin, but he never stopped advising Putin. Indeed, if liberal reforms ever happen under this president, Russian history would give Kudrin credit.
Last summer Kudrin was the first senior voice from Putin’s closest circle to announce: “The Russian economy is doomed.”
The talk of the town in Moscow is that Kudrin might return to the Kremlin to lead a center of reforms, but so far those are just the rumors.
Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has been torn by disagreements between conservative politicians, who were often acting together with ”Siloviki,” former military or secret service officers, and more liberal officials, who sometimes saw their chance to step in and once again mention to Putin that things need to change.
As the time for Putin’s address grew closer, the Russian liberal wing, including Kudrin; Elvira Nabiullina, a Tatar-born head of Russia’s Central Bank; Herman Gref, the CEO of the largest Russian bank, Sberbank; and Mikhail Abyzov, Minister of Open Government Affairs, pulled all the strings they could to push the president for reforms.
They were called, inevitably, “The Gang of Four.” They pushed hard to persuade Putin to curtail the power of the Siloviki and to clean up Russian law-enforcement, for starters.
After the speech, Kudrin complimented Putin for “admitting the importance of entrepreneurial freedom the and overpopulation of Siloviki.“
“That was the first such significant effort,” says Mikhail Zygar, editor in chief of Rain TV and author of the recently published book, All the Kremlin’s Men.
Meanwhile, truck drivers angry with high-level corruption drove hundreds of miles to Moscow to protest kickbacks to Putin’s cronies from an increase in tolls.
So, is Putin ready for real changes?
If the prosecutors showing up at Rain TV is any indication, no. Putin chose to ignore the evidence of corruption among the prosecutor general’s office and the Investigations Committee who, the Rain film’s authors claimed, were corrupt through and through. A few bureaucrats were arrested, but none at the highest levels.
Lipman is skeptical about the Kremlin’s intentions. There are miles between Putin’s words and his actions for reform, she said.
“Putin believes that things muddle through and do not tumble down,” Lipman said. Putin likes to say the “situation is difficult but not critical.”
The bottom line, Lipman told The Daily Beast: “No reforms are possible today, as they cause destabilization.”
Even if the ideas of Putin’s liberal crew penetrated his thinking, in reality Russia lives with an almost nonexistent electoral system, failing competitiveness, centralized political control, and a personalized regime constantly pushing the elite for total support.
That’s what the Russian people know, but what they don’t know at the end of the day is how to change it.