The Transition Generation. Who Will Rule Russia after 2024?

At the turn of the millennium, there was the so-called “Year 2000 problem”. It was expected that computers would “go crazy” and that this would lead to a global economic and transport collapse. However, on 1 January 2000, it turned out that the world had remained the same. The “Year 2024 problem” is quite similar to the “Year 2000 problem”, both in terms of the scale and the expectation of a disaster.

After the President’s address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian opposition unanimously concluded that President Putin is doing everything possible to extend his term in office. The impression of Western Russia critics is similar: Putin is running the country alone and he is not ready to resign from power.

Russia’s political reality is very different from the competitive nature of continental European democracies. The Kremlin does indeed set the overall direction of domestic politics, but the view, often propagated by Western media, that power in Russia is concentrated in the hands of one person only and once this person leaves the stage, the entire structure will collapse, is fundamentally wrong. Even the most persistent critics abroad, when writing about the transition in Russia, are aware that there are too many pressure groups for one to be able to seize power, too many institutions and procedures to consider the will of individual subjects a sledgehammer that would be able to destroy Russian laws.

In recent years, the number of those belonging to the transition generation has been growing constantly in state institutions. The generation of transition consists of several groups. The first one is the “Old Guard” of St. Petersburg. These are the people the President was friends with, had studied or worked with in Leningrad and Dresden before he transferred to Moscow. Part of this group are Sergey Chemezov, Sergey Ivanov, Dmitry Kozak, Alexey Kudrin, German Gref, Igor Sechin, Victor Zubkov, Arkady Rotenberg, Alexey Miller, Yuri Kovalchuk, Sergey Naryshkin, Nikolai Tokarev, Nikolai Patrushev, Alexander Bastrykin, etc. These people have known the President since he was a low-ranking officer in the Soviet KGB, at Leningrad University or the Leningrad Mayor’s Office. Besides them, political heavyweights such as Sergey Shoigu, Sergey Sobyanin, Vyacheslav Volodin, Valentina Matvienko, Dmitry Medvedev hold positions of power. Key courts have been headed by doyens of the power corporation for decades, Vyacheslav Lebedev and Valery Zorkin. Almost none of them is of advanced age, but in terms of experience in managing industrial, financial, political and media assets – who in Russia would be able to compete with them? Holding various positions in the government and in business they form a group that is loyal to the President. Severe contradictions and conflicts among them, including those resolved with the help of law enforcement agencies, courts or the media, are the norm, rather than a reason to spark a revolution and tear down the regime’s major institutions.

The very generation of transition includes, first of all, the so-called princelings. In China, for example, this term is used to describe high-ranking officials coming from families with a revolutionary background, with Xi Jinping, the current leader, being one of them. Dmitry Patrushev, Andrey Vorobyov, Artyom Chaika, Roman Rotenberg, Sergey Ivanov Jr., Petr Fradkov, Boris Kovalchuk and others, following in the footsteps of their fathers, provide for direct succession both in politics and business. Of course, the career paths of the fathers do have an impact on the careers of their sons: After Yuri Chaika’s resignation from the post of Attorney General, there were rumours of possible difficulties in his sons’ business. But, for example, Dmitry Patrushev, Minister of Agriculture, will probably maintain his position in the Russian government also after his father retires from active administration, and Andrei Vorobiev, Governor of the Moscow Region, is no less influential than his father, who worked with Sergei Shoigu in the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) for many years, but now sits in the Federation Council.

The second group of the transition generation consists of Vladimir Putin’s aide-de-camps, trusted people with FSB and FSO background. Not all of them managed to advance their career in public policy, but all them stayed within the structure of the power corporation. Viktor Zolotov at Rosgvardiya, Alexey Dyumin in Tula, Dmitry Mironov in Yaroslavl, Evgeny Zinichev at the MES, Sergey Morozov at the Federal Customs Service, Igor Babushkin in Astrakhan and Alexander Matovnikov in the military – all of them, being personally loyal to the President, are successfully climbing the career ladder. One of Viktor Zolotov’s first public photos pictures him on the tank together with President Yeltsin next to the White House in Moscow. He first served as a bodyguard to Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of St. Petersburg, among other things, taking his daughter, Ksenia Sobchak, the future presidential candidate, to school. After that he went into business, then served as a bodyguard to Vladimir Putin, always by his side, until he was appointed Chief of Rosgvardiya. Alexey Dyumin, Evgeny Zinichev, Sergey Morozov and Dmitry Mironov followed similar paths. Zinichev and Morozov, due to their classified career background, failed in their public careers as regional governors. The heads of the Kaliningrad and Astrakhan regions remained in office for less than six months. Zinichev, however, was promoted to the MES, while Morozov is still “on the bench” serving as advisor to the head of the Russian customs service. Alexander Matovnikov has not been particularly successful in the North Caucasian Federal District either (his authorized representative office had to deal with the exacerbation of the extremely sensitive territorial conflict between Chechnya and Ingushetia). But after his resignation, he became Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces. I would like to emphasize that none of the aid-de-camp group members, even after leaving office for obvious reasons, was not offered a position of honorary retirement, like for instance in the Federation Council. These people move from one position to another, a fact showing that fine-tuning works within the Russian cadre machine. Apart from aid-de-camp members, this group of transition also consists of people having much closer personal ties to the President than most others. Just watch the video of the farewell ceremony between Putin and Igor Rudenya, Governor of the Tver Region, in St. Petersburg. And there is Ramzan Kadyrov’s special veneration for the President. There are members of the political establishment, for whom the President has genuine respect and where there is mutual sympathy.

And finally, the third group: modernisers and managers who can be described with the single indistinctive and almost meaningless term of technocrats. They are not particularly favoured by the President, nor are they his KGB or St. Petersburg mayor’s office buddies. Still, their careers are the result of the efficiently working upward mobility system that promotes managers with siloviki, business or municipal governance background to the regional or federal level of power. Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov, Dmitry Azarov from Samara, Valery Limarenko from Sakhalin, Oleg Kozhemyako from Vladivostok, Stanislav Voskresensky from Ivanovo, Head and First Deputy Head of the Ministry of Economics Maxim Reshetnikov and Mikhail Babich, Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov, Head of the Presidential Executive Office Anton Vaino, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, ex-Minister of Economics Maxim Oreshkin, both Nikitins from both Novgorods, Radiy Khabirov from Bashkiria, Aisen Nikolaev from Yakutia, Alexey Tsydenov from Buryatia, Alexander Brechalov from Udmurtia – all these people are young and without ideological bias, while Valentin Konovalov’s (Khakassia) and Andrey Klychkov’s (Orel) communist and Sergey Furgals’s (Khabarovsk) and Aleksey Ostrovsky’s (Smolensk) lib-dem backgrounds do not make them a fifth column eager to play separatists waiting for the advent of 2024.  Career competitions organised by Sergey Kirienko’s team, which are open to every Russian citizen in the early stages, are a channel that will constantly fill the pool of transition generation leaders. The “Leaders of Russia” contest selects mid-level managers in several stages from all over the country. Quite a few managers selected out of 600,000 people in three years have become deputy ministers and governors. In addition to the traditional career lifts, “Leaders of Russia” is meant to be a constantly working job ladder.

Peers of mine, including people from the regions, with brilliant Russian and Western education void of the old Soviet nomenklatura mindset work as heads of departments in the presidential administration, in ministerial departments, or as governors. Nikolai Nikiforov became minister at the age of 29.

The issue of transition is exaggerated. What does the so-called “Year 2024 problem” tell us about the future? That the whole power corporation will suddenly plunge into a Hobbesian war of “all against all”? Why suddenly, for no particular reason, the existing institutions should fall, the procedures should cease to function, and the informal rules of the game should suddenly be ignored? 

Here is an example ex adverso. It is 1999, and the approval rating of President Yeltsin is less than 10%, let alone his electoral rating which simply does not exist. Russia is falling apart, and Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, already two years ago presented himself as head of the entire country. Most of the governors have already pledged allegiance to his tandem with ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The Federation Council is not a sinecure, but a convention of regional heads, permanently arguing with the presidential administration. The State Duma turns down the Presidential appointees. Recently, an impeachment procedure was almost initiated. Vladimir Putin, head of the FSB, unknown to the masses, except for the fact that he worked for Sobchak at the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office, is appointed Prime Minister, thus becoming Russia’s number two. Terrorists have invaded Dagestan. The Kremlin has no control over Chechnya. Oligarchs control a significant part of the corporation of power. Western political scientists write articles not about Russia’s role in the world but about its survival. But even under such conditions, the Russian political system was not dismantled but provided a transition of power without bloodshed. Russia is approaching the 2024 transition with the President enjoying a high level of legitimacy, consolidated borders, restored domestic sovereignty throughout the country, functioning systemic institutions, the administration’s initiatives easily passing the parliament, and governors closely cooperating with the Kremlin, even though some of them belong to the opposition. The oligarchs have been replaced by state capitalists who are ready to “give up the business if asked”. The Russian political system and its architects can and should be criticized for many things, but not for lack of consolidation of power, manageability and stability.

The Russian political establishment is the main guarantor of the generational change that will take place in the Russian elite. In 2020-2024 the generation of transition will provide this change, but not at President Putin’s will, although it is this generation that owes him their careers. The very essence of the development of the political process, the very meaning of politics, understood in the Schmittian “we – they” determines that in order to preserve Russia’s borders, army, economy, social sphere and, finally, demographic dynamics, governors, siloviki, ministers, political managers, mayors and MPs will continue to work under any new president. The adjustment of Russian foreign and domestic policy and the balance between interest groups within the political system indeed depend on who will take office, but not the system per se. Perceiving Russia as a country entirely dependent on one person is fundamentally wrong. The Russian political system is a functioning machine that ensured transition under far more unfavourable conditions 20 years ago. The Russian political establishment, despite all its loyalty to President Putin and the frequent personal dependence of their careers on his decisions, is a much bigger balancing factor than the institution of the Presidency. It is impossible to understand modern Russia without these two political categories. Russia will continue to exist also after 2024.