BMB Russia: Technocrats vs Aristocrats – How the Russian Political Elite is Changing

Article published on the website of BMB Russia on November 28th.

The career paths of Russian officials Maxim Akimov and Dmitry Patrushev could hardly be more different, yet, in 2018, both landed roles in Vladimir Putin’s fourth government.

Akimov grew up and worked most of his life in the western region of Kaluga, where he graduated in 1993 from the History faculty before settling down as a high-school history teacher. He entered local government three years later and rose through the ranks over the course of a decade, becoming deputy governor in 2007. Contrast this with Dmitry Patrushev, the son of a former FSB director and current secretary of the Security Council who graduated from a prestigious Moscow business school in 1999 and then joined the Ministry of Transport. Since 2002, Patrushev held high-ranking positions in several Russian state companies such as VTB Bank, the Russian Agricultural Bank, and Gazprom. Following Putin’s re-election in May, Akimov took the position of Deputy Prime minister for Transport, Communications and Digital Economy, while Patrushev was appointed Agriculture minister.

The new appointments to the presidential administration, in many ways the real center of power in Russia, did not break new grounds. The presidential administration was barely touched, and changes in the government looked to observers designed with preservation and stability in mind.

But the appointment of Akimov and Patrushev highlight two trends that have been gaining strength in Russian politics these last few years: the parallel rise of fresh-faced technocrats from regional governments and of children of high-ranking officials.

These two trends have, until now, developed mostly separate from each other: technocrats have been elevated in regional and then federal administrations, while “sons of” took leading roles in Russian state companies. The appointment of Dmitry Patrushev as Agriculture minister is a significant development because he is one of the first “sons of” to reach such a high-ranking political position.

Both groups rose to prominence in very different ways: the technocrats were elevated as part of a deliberate –and recent– Kremlin strategy, while the aristocrats took advantage of their parents’ positions as well as Russia’s system of parallel governance. These differences also suggest sometimes divergent interests and goals. For example, the children of Putin’s inner circle – the major beneficiaries of parallel governance and informal relationships – may not look fondly at efforts to strengthen and entrench Russia’s formal political structure and, potentially, its ability to withstand the pressure of transition to a post-Putin government.

The Kremlin empowered both groups for different reasons: a need to maintain control over state companies for the aristocrats, and a desire to prop up a new elite for the technocrats. However, increasingly intense discussion about the shape of a post-Putin Russia shows that both groups remain at odds when it comes to their future place in the political system.

Meet the Team

In the new government, 42 years-old Science minister Mikhail Kotyukov also fits the archetype of the young technocrat who climbed the regional ladder before being called to Moscow. He worked in the administration of the Krasnoyarsk krai from 1997 to 2008, ending up as the region’s Finance minister before moving to Russia’s Finance minister. Other examples include a good portion of the governors appointed since 2016, some of which looked so similar they prompted jokes about a Kremlin’s “governor clone factory.” The new governor of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, 30 years-old Dmitry Artyukhov, worked in the regional administration as an advisor before he was appointed in May 2018. The region’s former governor described Artyukhov as being part of a “new generation of managers, excellently educated and with results and experiences from practical work in the most complicated parts of state government”. He is also the youngest Russian governor in the country’s post-soviet history.

Children or relatives of high-ranking Russian officials fast-tracking to top positions can be found mostly among the boards of directors of Russian state firms. Patrushev’s eldest son, Andrey, worked as deputy head of the FSB’s “P” department’s 9th section for three years before taking high-ranking positions in several Russian energy companies (including Rosneft and Gazprom Neft). The 35 years-old son of Dmitry Rogozin, a former Deputy Prime minister who was recently appointed director of Roscosmos, became in 2017 the CEO of the Ilyushin Aviation Complex. Sergei Kiriyenko, the powerful deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration in charge of domestic politics, has a son working as vice-president of the telecommunications company Rostelekom. The son of Sergei Ivanov, former Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, became in March 2017 the head of Alrosa, the world’s biggest diamond mining company.  Others members of the Russian elite with sons working for top Russian state corporations include Arkadiy Rotenberg, Mikhail Fradkov (who lead Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016) or Alexander Bortnikov, the current head of the FSB.

State Logics and Elite Strategies

Select young bureaucrats and children of the Russian elite have accrued influence for different reasons.

The biggest difference is that the more prominent role taken by technocrats is the result of a deliberate Kremlin strategy, while the rise of the aristocrats owes more to the characteristics of the Russian political system.

For the bureaucrats, the process took off in 2015, as deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Kiriyenko looked for ways to rejuvenate the political class, reintroduce a bout of meritocracy in the Russian government, and reinforce the Kremlin’s control over the regions. Depoliticized and praised as efficient managers able to lead using KPIs and other modern metrics, they represent the latest attempt by the Kremlin to reduce the need for “manual control” across Russia.

The most ambitious goal was to set up political institutions less dependent on Vladimir Putin, analyst Andrey Pertsev writes. Reshuffles were decided, with young bureaucrats sent to take the rein of regions and later, ministers.

The trend is likely to be a durable one, according to analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, because the Kremlin tries “to make government autonomous of Putin’s day-to-day participation” as the president’s interest in domestic policy keeps waning.

A much more slow-growing and organic process explains the rise of the elite’s second generation. children of powerful figures received their education in the best (and often, Western) universities and were able to leverage their parents’ wealth and contacts to land top positions – something hardly exclusive to Russia.

If so many children of the Russian elite hold positions in state corporations, it is also because the Kremlin has long decided that these companies play a major role in maintaining Russia’s sovereignty. More than in the West, Russia’s power structure relies heavily on informal rules and relations to function properly. This is especially true when it comes to institutions outside of the formal political system, like state companies. The state-driven nature of the Russian economy and the importance of parallel power structures then drives the sons of the Russian elite to these companies.

While the Kremlin did not prop up children of the Russian elite in the same deliberate way it did for the technocrats, it nevertheless empowered them for the sake of stability, which allowed a reliance on informal power structures to reach a new generation.

The Generational Factor

It is no accident that the rise of these groups coincides with an increasingly intense discussion about the transition towards a post-Putin Russia: in all three cases, the perception that the Soviet generation is starting to be phased out from Russian politics is driving the discussion.

Children of figures close to Putin are gaining importance because they have reached an age that allows them to take influential positions, while the appointment of technocrats has been touted by the Kremlin as a way to rejuvenate Russian politics and bureaucracy. With mixed results: while 20 of the last 36 appointed governors are under 50, the members of nearly all the top state institutions have on average become older between 2012 and 2017. “Leaders of Russia,” a state-sponsored competition designed to identify young, motivated people who would then be given top positions in administrations or state companies, was one of the most visible aspects of this attempted rejuvenation. Though it had the marks of a PR project, it seems the experiment has been considered successful and might be reconducted.

Some analysts see the appointment of regional technocrats as more than a desire to rejuvenate the bureaucracy. It can also be explained as an early preparation for a post-Putin transition that is favorable to the current authorities. The Kremlin, the argument goes, is elevating select people outside of the traditional political realm who, devoid of ideology but owing everything to Putin, would be able to handle a change of power without sparking a succession battle. More importantly, they would be tasked with preserving Putin’s legacy, ensuring that the system can keep working without his direct intervention.

This is where the biggest opposition between the two groups can be found. The sons and daughters of the Russian elite are not only an integral part of a power structure that places a major emphasis on informal relations and parallel governance: they are also the heirs and direct beneficiaries of a system which revolves entirely around the figure of Vladimir Putin. But, if those analysts are right, the technocrats are supposed to strengthen formal political institutions and keep the current system running when Putin will no longer be at the helm. As the prospect of Putin leaving power gets closer, the contradictions in the two groups’ interests and goals are likely to widen.

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