Russian political regime transformation: prospects for future

Nikolay Petrov,
Senior Research Fellow,
Russia and Eurasia Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs,
London, The United Kingdom

While experts discuss how President Putin would reshuffle the system to maintain his grip on  power, while stepping back from the day-to-day running of the country, the political transformation appears to have already taken place.

Putin’s reduced visibility and physical isolation were understood as responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have turned out to be the basis for the new political structure. Putin has indeed moved away from the daily tasks of the presidency. He is now based primarily in his bunker near Moscow or in Sochi, holding one meeting a day at most and leaving the administration and decision-making to a number of newly-created, relatively independent, competing centres of power. This political oligopoly is in effect implementing a splitting of the functions of governance, in order to strengthen their dominance at the highest level.

The seven-headed dragon

This emerging political structure, which represents Putin’s far-reaching personal power rather than the power of independent institutions, resembles a dragon with several heads.  There are effectively two governments (one subordinate to the prime minister, the other answerable directly to the president); then there is the Presidential Administration and its entirely autonomous Security Council; the State Council; the Kozak International Development Assistance Commission and finally VEB’s mega development institution. Some powerful business and security service (siloviki) corporations such as Gazprom and the FSB respectively, which are subordinate to the president, function as direct arms of Putin’s power.

With Putin’s reduced physical presence in the running of the country, the Presidential Administration (PA) looks somewhat deflated, resembling nothing more than a vast control centre. Its tentacles are everywhere, however, including Mishustin’s government, the State Council, the International Commission under Dmitry Kozak, a deputy head of the PA. In other words, five out of the seven dragon’s heads are controlled by the Presidential Administration.

Elite groups

In such conditions the role of elite groups and clans, acting as informal governance structures, is growing. The government no longer tries to balance the interests of different elite groups through the appointment of ministers, but is representing one particular group under  billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Other elite group interests are balanced by the heads of other entities.

Intra-elite alliances have another, completely informal, but obvious  dimension, that could be described as a cross between Masonic lodges and members’ clubs for the Russian elite. The Diveyevo and Athos Orthodox brotherhoods are two examples, which occasionally compete with each other for influence at state level. Prime Minister Mishustin and his three Deputy Prime Ministers, Andrei Belousov, Dmitry Chernyshenko and Yuri Trutnev, belong to the first group which is associated with billionaire businessmen the Kovalchuk brothers and Sergei Kirienko (Rosatom). The second counts the Rotenberg brothers and Putin’s ‘masseur’ Konstantin Goloshchapov among its followers. Historically, the Athos brotherhood was mainly associated with the St. Petersburg security forces. Current politicians associated with the Athos movement include Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Naryshkin, Yuri Chaika and Andrei Turchak.


Putin’s new political system has not yet been fully formed, although the main elements are in place. It is now all a matter of how they will be balanced against each other and how they will interact. In the coming months, the system will face significant changes, but at the personal rather than institutional level. These changes will affect primarily the security bloc (Nikolai Patrushev, Alexander Bortnikov and Alexander Bastrykin) and the  political bloc (Valentina Matvienko, Vyacheslav Volodin and party leaders). The fate of the prime minister and his government is also uncertain. Some experts consider them transitional players, giving them until the completion of Putin’s transformed political system: one in which he retains the reigns of power but departs from managing the country.

The prospects for further transformation of the Russian political regime are confronted by three serious problems. The first is the inability of the system to carry out serious large-scale reforms that require coordinated action by its various parts. The 2018 pension reform serves as the most recent illustration of this. The second is the utopianism and counter-productiveness of the final result. The governing system of a huge country, on the one hand, seems to be decentralised, and, on the other hand, is turning into a “Big Presidency” – a huge ramified structure where deputies and presidential representatives in different sectors work in a semi-autonomous mode, providing the functions of current management. The third and final problem for the system is associated with new challenges, both external and internal, that would arise from a general increase in development turbulence, a logjam of issues and material fatigue.

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