Wed, Sep 03, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Speaking the truth to Putin is a risk few are willing to take

As ‘Kremlinology’ comes back in vogue, the inner circle around Russia’s president becomes ever tighter

By Shaun Walker  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Y. C. Chen

Revered, even feared, to the point where no one is likely to contradict him; aloof, isolated, a digital hermit who is never out of touch; broadly supported, but very narrowly advised by an ever-tighter group of confidantes. This is the picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his leadership style as painted by a number of people with knowledge of the inner workings of the Kremlin, at a time when such things matter more than at any time since the collapse of communism.

Putin’s Ukraine actions this year have turned him once again into arguably the world’s most fascinating leader. However, just as Kremlinology comes back into vogue, the walls of Putin’s central Moscow redoubt are becoming as opaque as they were during the time of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

One anecdote about Putin’s Kremlin reveals a tantalizing glimpse of what it is to be a presidential adviser. Putin himself receives briefing information on printed sheets inside red folders; he very rarely uses the Internet. According to one source, requirements for his briefing notes have changed significantly in recent months. The president now demands notes on any topic to be no more than three pages long and written in type no smaller than 18 point.

However, the number of people speaking truth to power is small. The majority of those in the Russian government, exasperated by the sharp Western response to the six-month crisis, approve of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

Those who disapprove have no forum in which to voice their doubts.

Putin himself gives few clues as to how he runs the shop. On Friday last week, he offered an elliptical answer to a question about leadership.

“The main criterion for success is when a person has their own deep personal conviction in what they do. The task is not so that people are forced to follow your opinion, but to get your point of view across effectively. That is when people will become trusting and start to support you,” he said.

There is no question that Putin is supported by Russia’s elite, perhaps as never before. Evgeny Minchenko, an analyst who studies Kremlin elites, says that the security services, after a number of recent reshuffles and purges, are now “more loyal to Putin than at any time since he took power.”

That does not mean that the Kremlin is united. Former employees say the level of infighting is remarkable because of the extraordinary array of people working under one roof.

“In a country like America where you have a two-party system, the majority of top decisionmakers would change depending on if it was a Republican or Democrat administration,” one former Kremlin employee says. “However, the Kremlin is full of people with completely opposing views. You can have people who believe in a fully state-controlled economy working on a project with people who are market-oriented liberals.”

Far from finding this a problem, Putin relishes this, the source said.

“He likes it when his subordinates fight each other; he feels it makes him stronger,” the source said.

Some are uneasy about the way policy has developed, but lack opportunities to voice their worries. Public dissent is a no-go area.

A deputy economic development minister who referred to a government policy as “shameful” early last month was immediately fired; the more free-thinking members of the government have long been purged.

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