Understanding Methods of Elite Repression in Russia

Nikolai Petrov explains how public arrests of high-ranking officials reveal the power dynamics within the Russian political elite.

Expert comment Published 4 June 2019 2 minute READ

Jason Naselli

Former Senior Digital Editor

Mark of the FSB in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images.

Mark of the FSB in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images.

How have the methods of political control of the Russian elite changed over the past few years?

Starting from 2014, what I would call political repression has become more common, and it has become a very important tool. There has been a stable, high level of arrests within certain groups of elites – or even in some cases, a spiral of repression where the number and intensity of the punishments continually increases.

If you look at the targets, you can see that these people are not the most corrupt, nor did they violate any informal ‘rules of the game’. They were chosen just to send signals to certain groups within the elite, whether that be corporate leadership or governors and regional political elites – or even officers in the security services.

Initially after the 2012 election, when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency amid political protests, he was much more beholden to the elites

In my view, the need for this tool comes out of the 2012 election, when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency amid political protests. But after 2014 and his actions in Ukraine, Putin received a huge boost in popularity and became less dependent on these political elites, so that enabled him to deal with them in much harsher ways.

What form do these punishments take?

The methods are usually arrests which are conducted very publicly, often without any legal standing. For instance, a regional governor, without any court decision, is arrested on camera, the footage is widely shown and he is publicly accused of violating various laws. This is a very important element.

One of the reasons it is clearly political repression is that often the purported wrongdoings are simply usual, accepted practice for the Russian bureaucracy. This sends a very strong signal that, whatever you are doing, you can be easily punished. And that’s why you should be extremely loyal and avoid making any big moves without getting special permission. It’s a form of political control.

How is the use of this type of repression changing as Putin moves into his fourth and purportedly final term?

When I talk about a spiral of repression, what I mean is that more and more new groups of elites – those who were until recently considered to be immune – are becoming targets. For instance, several top-level FSB officers have been arrested recently, whereas previously this would have been unthinkable.

Some experts have started to talk about a ‘transformation’ of the regime, where different power groups are fighting among each other without coordination from the top. But in my view, this is not the case. In my view, this is a kind of balancing of the system. The FSB had been a big beneficiary of previous cycles of repression, and the system became very unbalanced as they accumulated power. Putin needed to somehow counterbalance the FSB’s growing influence, and that’s why it was important to show that they are not themselves immune to these tactics.

There have certainly been arrests within the FSB before, especially in the case of defectors or something like that, but it’s different now. It’s very public – the searches are shown, lots of money is found and displayed on camera – so it is aimed at getting a certain public reaction.

There are two general ideas behind that. The first is to demonstrate that officials can be bad, but the president is good. In Russian, there is the saying ‘the tsar is good, the boyars are bad’. This plays into that.

The second idea is to play on understandable public feelings against elites. It is a kind of populist tactic, but Putin, who has been in power for 20 years, is limited in his ability to play that card. So, these arrests are used by Putin in order to try to demonstrate that he is on the side of people against bad elites.

Where do you see this dynamic going in the next few years?

There is another dimension to this repression which is economic, and I think that makes it unlikely that it will stop anytime in the near future. The power system in Russia needs to somehow redistribute assets. A whole generation of oligarchs is coming to the end of its time, and this system of repression is not just controlling them politically, it is trying to strongarm them into keeping their assets within the system and to not try to pass them on to their children.

That’s why recently, many of the richest people in Russia have made statements to the effect that ‘if the state needs it, I will leave my wealth to the Russian state eagerly’. Because if they don’t do it eagerly, it can be done in a very different, much more painful way.

So, if the Russian economy does not improve and fundamentally change in the near future, the conditions for political repression will remain in place.