The Three Faces of Putin

MOSCOW: Being president of Russia is often caricatured as being like a tsar, but the powers of President Vladimir Putin are more constrained than the Kremlin’s former autocrats and Politburo chieftains. An obvious sign of this is the amount of time Putin spends on foreign trips with little diplomatic justification. Diplomacy, however, allows a president opportunity to enhance his authority for future domestic battles.

The constraints Putin faces are not constitutional but are formed by the three factions that make up his government. One is a group of FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) men from St. Petersburg, headed by Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov. The second consists of liberal economists and lawyers from Putin’s home town of St. Petersburg, with Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin and Minister of Economy German Gref the leading lights. The third faction is an “oligarchic” business-oriented group led by Putin’s chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the secretive oil and aluminum tycoon Roman Abramovich, perhaps Russia’s richest man at age 33.

Because of these three very visible fault lines, some Russians describe their country as having distinct security, economic, and political/business governments. The FSB people naturally focus on security, law, and order. The St. Petersburg liberals pursue market economic reforms. But, as under Yeltsin, it is the oligarchic faction that dominates, for it controls the Presidential Administration, the Council of Ministers, two centrist parliamentary factions, and much of Russia’s oil, aluminum, railways and nuclear industries.

So far, Putin has compromised with the oligarchic force, which has reduced his personal imprint on policies. It is too powerful and skillful to be challenged head-on. Kremlin policymaking is largely an interplay between these three factions.