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Russia’s Putin Sidelining Liberals in Conservatives’ Favor

The dismissal of the Kremlin’s former chief ideologist seems to confirm a power shift.

Since winning a third presidential term last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin has removed liberals from his inner circle, tilting the balance of power in favor of conservative veterans of the nation’s security and spy agencies known as the siloviki.

Wednesday’s dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, once the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, underlined a trend. He had become somewhat critical of Putin after being removed from his staff in late 2011, apparently in punishment for the ruling party’s 15 percent drop in support in that year’s parliamentary election.

Putin’s longtime finance minister Alexei Kudrin was also dismissed that year. In a television appearance last week, when Putin answered live questions from the audience, he disputed the president’s claim that the slowdown in Russian growth should be attributed to weakened demand for its export products. Rather he urged the government to finally wean itself off oil and gas sales.

While liberal economic and fiscal reforms were enacted during Putin’s early years in power, including dramatic income tax cuts, debt stabilization and education and infrastructure spending that helped fuel economic growth, there has been little progress since Kudrin’s resignation. Both Putin and his deputy Dmitri Medvedev have continually stressed the importance of diversification but done little to reduce the state’s role in, and reliance on, hydrocarbon industries.

Rather state oil major Rosneft has grown into the world’s largest publicly listed energy company by output under the stewardship of Igor Sechin, formerly a Soviet intelligence officer who has been among Putin’s closest advisors since he became chief of staff to the man who was then mayor of Saint Petersburg. Even if he stepped down from a cabinet position last year, Sechin is still seen as the leader of the siloviki.

Sergei Ivanov, another hardliner whom Medvedev dismissed as defense minister as 2008, has returned as head of Putin’s Kremlin administration.

Putin’s own views have long oscillated between the conservatives and liberals in his inner circle.

While pursuing market reforms, he consolidated the energy sector almost under his personal control through the Gazprom conglomerate. He defied some of the tycoons who had been able to take control of entire industries in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse but otherwise did little to revise the clientelist power structure that is largely fueled by oil and gas sales. He rejects the hawks’ desire for an alliance with China against the West but seems to have given up on closer relations with the European Union and the United States as well, retreating instead into the former Soviet sphere of influence with an attempt to build an “Eurasian Union.”

The rightward shift might be one of perceived necessity. Increased oil and gas production in North America and Gazprom’s antitrust battles with the European Union prompted Putin to shield the company from foreign legal investigations in September, deepening its dependence on the state and preventing investment from flowing into other industries.

Politically, Putin’s position looks less secure. While he comfortably won last year’s election with almost 64 percent of the votes, it was a drop in support from 71 percent in 2004. Mainly urban and middle-class Russians, whose economic prospects have improved in large part because of the reforms Putin enacted during his first two terms, are increasingly dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top.

Rural and working-class voters, by contrast, have seen little economic improvement in recent years and are turning to communist and nationalist rather than leftist opposition parties. Putin seems to consider this shift the greater threat to his political survival and has resorted to patriotism and populist economic measures to boost his support in the provinces, even after warning in January of last year that Russia’s “multiethnic society” would lose its “strength and durability” if it was “infested by nationalism.”