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.