What palace coup?

According to the rumours circulating this past week, Russian president Vladimir Putin was either ill, dead, a new father, or had been secretly thrown out of power by unknown forces in the Kremlin. Forbes magazine, for instance, ran an article entitled ‘Can Putin’s absence indicate a palace coup in Moscow?’ Forbes cited Putin’s former economics advisor Andrei Illarionov, who wrote of a ‘general’s plot’ which would result in the forcible retirement of Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper had a slightly different take on the matter. ‘Former FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev was behind the plot’, it claimed, referencing the ‘chairman of the pro-Kremlin National Islamic Committee, Geydar Dzhemal.’

We now know that none of this was true. This Monday Putin was around and about visiting St Petersburg. But the palace coup rumours did not come out of nowhere. For several months now, commentators have been speculating with increasing regularity that such a change of power was inevitable. Thus novelist Boris Akunin mused in The Interpreter in June last year that Putin’s rule would end either ‘in a palace coup or a social explosion’. The Interpreter’s Paul Goble later betted firmly on the former with an article claiming: ‘Interest in a Palace Coup against Putin Said Growing among Russian Elites’

Others have taken up the theme. In December 2014, for instance, Shaun Walker wrote for The Guardian that, ‘the Russian oil crash could threaten Putin with a palace coup.’ If the Russian economy collapsed, claimed Walker, there could be ‘splits’ among the elites: ‘even among those ideologically in tandem with Putin, if their vast wealth begins to be threatened, their loyalty may waver.’  ‘Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup,’ agreed Mark Galeotti this week. And Donald Jensen wrote in February that:

Although Putin appears firmly in charge, any threat to him at the moment lies in the corridors of power rather than in the streets. Western sanctions and the drop in oil prices demonstrate that Putin is no longer able to protect the economic interests of key members of the ruling class. … There is little doubt these disaffected oligarchs have begun to quietly consider a change in the regime’s leadership.’

Yet what this coup would consist of is unclear. Illarionov speaks of a ‘general’s plot’, but Galeotti denies that a military coup is possible and speaks instead of some ‘political’ action which might lead to Putin’s fall. This vagueness strongly suggests the palace coup is not a properly thought-out scenario. Moreover, no evidence is ever provided to justify Jensen’s claim that the Russian elite are considering a change of leader. With Putin’s approval rating currently at 88%, toppling him would be both extremely difficult and politically suicidal. In addition, the Ukrainian experience has surely demonstrated the catastrophic consequences which follow from running roughshod over constitutional technicalities. It is very hard to see who could benefit from an unconstitutional change of government. Russia’s economy is not doing very well at the moment, but the predicted 2-4% decline in GDP is hardly coup-worthy.

How then can one explain the current obsession with the possibility of a palace coup? The answer seems to lie in the abject failure of Russia’s liberal opposition to overthrow Putin by other means. Three years ago, there was great optimism that the demonstrations in Moscow which followed the 2011 Duma elections showed that the political tide had turned decisively against Russia’s ruler. This optimism proved to be mistaken. The opposition is as isolated and unpopular as ever, while Putin’s popularity has grown and grown. But as Nina Khrushcheva writes, ‘One hope remains, a palace coup.’ The talk of a coup thus appears to be the final straw of wishful thinking to which those opposed to Putin cling now that it is clear that they will never defeat him by legitimate political means or mass protests. Rather than being a sign of Putin’s political weakness, therefore, the rumours of a palace coup are a sign of his continuing strength.

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7 thoughts on “What palace coup?”

  1. I agree with your conclusion, Paul. The great zeitgeist of Kremlinologists has devolved to a “palace coup” because (a) they like saying it, it sounds cosmopolitan and rakish, and (b) other scenarios have been examined and discarded: 1. Putin is swallowed by a giant anaconda, which succeeded spectacularly in the cheeseball movie featuring Jon Voight, but was found to be unworkable when the giant suitcase with the anaconda in it could not pass Russian customs; (2) Putin is crushed by a metorite, initially roused excitement but had to be abandoned when it was realized he might serve another term and subsequently die of old age before he could be maneuvered under a predictable meteorite; (3) Putin is frozen to death by being trapped in a big freezer, like those clever kids in Jurassic Park did to the raptor, which had to be dropped when the effort to hook Putin on junk food so he could be lured into the freezer failed.

    This teaches us all something significant. The great western Russia analysts of our day are groping in the dark, just as if you had asked the proprietor of a nail salon to theorize what might have happened to Putin. They are so thoroughly inoculated with paranoid conspiracy theories and meaningless twaddle, to say nothing of being blocked from objectivity by hopes that Putin might actually be dead and the liberal dream of Death By Incompetence might be realized for Russia that they might just as well flip a coin. They were wrong. We were right.

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    1. What I have noticed about international affairs analysts is a tendency to bandwagon on whatever the latest catchphrase or buzzword is – ‘hybrid war’ is a popular one nowadays. ‘Palace coup’ is another. As you say, they are ‘groping in the dark’ and repeating the latest phrase substitutes for real understanding.

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  2. Actually, Mark, that’s unfair to proprietors of nail salons. At least they know something and can do something. That connection to reality alone, gives them a head start.

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  3. It occurs to me that this ‘palace coup’ scenario is being talked up by those desperate for ‘regime change’ by any means – always with the underlying hope that they themselves will then of course become the ‘leaders’ – because it serves as a slow drip-drip-drip to make the poor benighted Russians aware of their suppressed existence, giving them hope to tumble into the arms of the liberal, westernised ‘leaders’. After all, they seem to think, by hook or by crook it must be possible to get a Yelzin Mk II installed ….
    /sarc

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