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Interpreting a sudden crackdown on extravagant officials
For senior members of the United Russia party it was like a scene from Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”. They would have special affinity with Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi, chairman of the tenants’ association tricked by Woland (Satan in disguise). The roubles he gets from Woland’s sidekick and stuffs into a ventilation shaft turn into dollars. Bosoi is arrested and put in a psychiatric ward, where he dreams of a bass voice booming from the sky: “Hand over your foreign currency!”
This time the voice asking for a handover of foreign bank accounts was President Vladimir Putin’s. On February 12th he submitted a bill to the Duma banning officials and lawmakers from having foreign bank accounts or investing in foreign government debt. The draft also banned the ownership of property abroad, though this was subsequently changed to merely demanding its declaration.
A day later Vladimir Pekhtin, a founder of United Russia and head of the Duma’s ethics committee, was revealed as the owner of an undeclared $1.3mluxury apartment in Miami Beach. The details were posted on the internet by Alexei Navalny, an opposition activist and blogger. Mr Pekhtin brushed off these “unmerited accusations”. “I practically have no property abroad,” he insisted. Yet on February 20th, doubtless after hearing Mr Putin’s voice, he resigned from the Duma. Even though he had done nothing wrong, he said, the scandal tainted the party and its interests must come above his own. Another United Russia deputy, Anatoly Lomakin, with an estimated fortune of $1.2 billion, resigned “for health reasons”. More deputies are on their way out, say press reports. State television showed pictures ofMiami Beachapartments and talked of purges and a return of moral values.
In place of public denunciations and 1930s show trials, the “purged” Mr Pekhtin was greeted by standing ovations from his comrades who called him an example of morality. No proceedings were started against him and he could yet end up with a cushy job. Nevertheless, the purges signal a shift inRussia’s politics.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin consultant, explains that, in the past, the nomenklatura were shielded from opponents’ criticism and left to enjoy the fruits of their loyalty at home and abroad without interference from the top. Mr Pekhtin’s resignation shows that this no longer holds true, but without explaining what the new rules are. This makes the elite nervous, which may be no bad thing from Mr Putin’s viewpoint.
The purges are not a concession to the opposition. Using Mr Navalny’s information to its advantage has not stopped the Kremlin from throwing new accusations at him. Nor do they stem from a sudden conversion to the principle of democratic accountability. Rather, say Kremlinologists, they reflect Mr Putin’s need to gain more legitimacy among voters and tighten his grip over an elite that likes to keep its assets and children in the West.
Behind the purges lies an assumption that the West is plotting against him and could exploit the private interests of Russian officials. Mr Putin seems to see America’s Magnitsky act, which threatens sanctions against Russian officials involved in human-rights abuses, as an attempt to control them. Hence his wish to “ring-fence” the elite from Western influence and gain more leverage.
But Mr Putin’s options are limited. Access to Western goods, services and property is a pillar of his system. Removing it could turn more of the elite against him. Random (and so far soft) purges, a ban on foreign bank accounts and anti-American hysteria may be mere half-measures, but even they may be too extreme. Alexei Venediktov, editor of Echo Moskvy, a radio station, comments that “Mr Putin has tied an axe over the head of the elite. But being a cautious politician, he considers a threat of repression more effective than repression itself.”
Repression is used against protesters but also on junior officials. In the past year over 800 cases have been opened into local officials, councillors and mayors. The highest-profile casualty so far was Anatoly Serdyukov, an ex-defence minister implicated in a procurement scandal. He was fired and humiliated on state television, but not arrested or charged. Whether he is now brought before the judges will show just how far Mr Putin’s purges go.