The Repressions Spiral

Maria Lipman & Nikolay Petrov
11 Mar 2019

Karachay-Cherkessia senator Rauf Arashukov was arrested on camera during a Federation Council session

In recent years, the Kremlin has stepped up its repressive policies against individuals and groups. While the media and political experts have largely focused on the persecution and prosecution of those engaged in unwelcome political and civic activities, repressions against administrative elites have significantly expanded and criminal punishments of high-ranking officials have grown much harsher. Maria Lipman speaks to Nikolay Petrov, who has studied the scope and patterns of repressions against high-ranking government officials and hypothesized about the goals of the Kremlin’s campaign, which has already put dozens of high-level executives behind bars.

Back in 2012, the legitimacy of the Russian regime was visibly eroding. Outrage over fraudulent legislative elections provoked mass street protests in Moscow and other large urban centers; according to public opinion polls, almost 40 percent of Russians sympathized with the protesters; and Putin’s approval and trust ratings significantly declined. Although the latter gained solid electoral support in March and returned to the Kremlin, by the end of that summer up to half of Russians were not shy about saying that they wanted Putin replaced by somebody else when his presidential term expired six years hence. In order to reconsolidate the regime’s weakened legitimacy, the Kremlin resorted to a combination of ideological and repressive instruments.

At the early stages, the repressive policies targeted protesters and political activists. But it was not just the public disappointment per se that raised the Kremlin’s concerns: declining public support for the supreme leader threatened to undermine the elites’ loyalty and lead to cleavages among them—the ultimate fear of an authoritarian regime. “The political need for repressions emerged in 2012,” says Nikolay Petrov, “when the Kremlin grew alarmed by the prospect of elite betrayal.”

In your work, what do you mean by the term “repressions” and who are the targets of “repressions against the elites”?

I define repressions as systematic, politically motivated, selective punishments aimed at intimidating and consolidating control over society and elites. It should be emphasized that the Kremlin considers elite cleavage the most serious threat, and rightly so. This means, in particular, that a) those who become the target of repressions are not necessarily the regime’s political opponents, and b) repressions are directed not against individuals, but against the groups they represent. 

The expectation that intimidation of the elites and games without rules come at a high cost and therefore cannot last long has turned out to be incorrect—as has the idea that a shift from a policy of cajoling to that of repressions would be too risky for the government. The system has rapidly ramped up repressions and either chooses not to stop them or is unable to stop them.

Today's repressions are not large-scale (as shown by Daniel Treisman and Sergey Guriev, modern authoritarian regimes do not need them to be large-scale), but nor are they laser-focused. For instance, Komi Republic has already experienced three waves of purges that started in 2015 and continue to this day. In Dagestan, repressions have gone on non-stop since January 2018.

Talking about agencies, cases against the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Economic Safety and Counteracting Corruption (MDESCC) have been investigated since 2014; hundreds of investigators have worked on those cases; the number of those arrested and convicted amounts to dozens. Such repressions can probably be referred to as localized.

Only the upper part of this iceberg is visible to the public; the real scope of the repressive machine is much larger. We can only observe the prosecution of “patrons,” while the actual repressions go deeper and involve a patron network of “clients.” Besides, as repressions unwind, they follow a certain logic: the interrogations of those detained provide evidence against their superiors that can later become of major importance for the repressive machine's performance, but, as a rule, this “primary stage” of repressions goes unnoticed. In this sense, many forced but “quiet” resignations—as well as the submission of those dismissed—can also be regarded as the result of repressions

"My calculations show that every year, about 1.5-2 percent of regional political elites find themselves under prosecution."

According to statistics cited by the “Peterburgskaya politika” foundation, in 2018 alone, criminal proceedings were instigated against 35 high-ranking officials (13 of federal level and 22 of regional level); 25 sentences, most of them hard, were passed. According to my own data on the same period, criminal proceedings were opened against 38 high-ranking regional-level officials, including 19 top-level members of regional administrations and mayors of regional capitals, and an equal number of federal-level officials. The number of those prosecuted every year has remained practically unchanged since 2015, but the number of convictions has grown. My calculations show that every year, about 1.5-2 percent of regional political elites find themselves under prosecution.

Beginning in 2012, most law-enforcement and security agencies have come under fire, among them the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Penal Correction Service, the Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Customs Service, the Federal Security Guard Service, and the Investigative Committee of Russia.  Those agencies, either at the top federal or highest regional level, that are as yet unaffected include the FSB, the Prosecutor's Office, and the judiciary—the very elements of the repressive machine.

The forced replacement of a corporation's head is generally preceded and followed by repressions, which obviously generates very high risks for that corporation's executives. This was the case with the Federal Security Guard Service, the head of which was dismissed in 2016 (some of the Service members were subsequently dismissed, others chose to quit), the Interior troops/Rosgvardia in 2016, and the Emergency Ministry in 2018. The formаtion of a new Cabinet in 2018 acted as a catalyst for the purging and reshuffling of the top management in several federal agencies, including the Federal Environmental, Industrial and Nuclear Supervision; the Federal Property Management Agency; and the Federal Service for Alcohol Market Regulation.

What are the most common charges brought against high-ranking officials? 

The current administrative system, which I would describe as “neo-nomenklatura,” on the one hand makes it possible to buy elites’ loyalty by granting them special benefits (for instance, they commonly buy apartments and land plots at preferential prices and under preferential regulations—not infrequently in contravention of the law). On the other hand, this makes elites vulnerable, as the system can at any time punish any of its members for unlawful operation.

"Corruption charges, broadly understood, are most convenient because they can be brought against any administrator."

Corruption charges, broadly understood, are most convenient because they can be brought against any administrator. But there are others; among the more common ones are building an organized criminal organization with the purpose of self-enrichment; embezzlement of state funds by unlawful transfers of cash, property, land plots, etc.; and abuse of office. Siloviki generals are often charged with illegal possession of ammunition, such as one or two dozen cartridges revealed during a house search.

“Repressions” usually imply prosecutions driven by political goals and either directed against innocent people or carrying disproportionate punishments. However, as you say, it is easy to find incriminating evidence against governors or other officials. Why, then, are you still talking about “repressions” and not an “anti-corruption campaign”?  

There are several reasons to claim that the anti-corruption measures are but a disguise and that in most cases we should, in fact, be talking about repressions against elites. The first is selective enforcement. The second is, not infrequently, demonstratively harsh treatment of those under prosecution, and severe punishments. The third has to do with court proceedings, which are commonly characterized by preordained results, a weak body of evidence, and arbitrary interpretation of legal norms as well as the substance of the episode under criminal examination. Finally, it is noteworthy that not infrequently the alleged crime was committed a long time ago and the accused’s status is disproportionate to the crime. For instance, in the case against Denis Sugrobov, a MDESCC general sentenced to 22 years in prison camp in April 2017 (in December 2017 the Supreme Court commuted his sentence to 12 years), the investigation failed to find lucrative motives, and in the end he was charged with building a criminal organization with the sole purpose of inflating the corruption crime detection rate statistics and receiving government awards and certificates of gratitude.

"When an extensive case unfolds based on a certain pre-existing scenario, the target is not an individual, but a whole patronal network."

One of the reasons to qualify the prosecutions of elite members as purposeful repressions is their group- or network-focused character: when an extensive case unfolds based on a certain pre-existing scenario, the target is not an individual, but a whole patronal network.

What about the dynamic of repressions? You talk about a “repression spiral”…

As repressions unfold, the range of vulnerable groups becomes broader and the number of VIPs with very powerful clout who enjoy “immunity” is abruptly reduced. For instance, in 2012 proceedings were instigated against Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and the head of the Federal Penal Correction Service, Aleksandr Reimer (Reimer resigned in 2012 and was detained in 2015). In 2015, governors Aleksandr Khoroshavin and Vyacheslav Geyser were arrested, and in 2017 federal minister Aleksey Ulyukaev was taken under arrest.  Most recently, Michael Calvey, a prominent American businessman who has worked in Russia for many years, and a group of managers were arrested in the framework of the Baring Vostok affair.

The repression “spiral” thus implies that the range of the targets becomes broader and their status becomes higher. In 2018, the aforementioned total purge in Dagestan was a new landmark in the anti-elite repression spiral. Dozens of individuals were arrested, including almost all of the republic's top leadership, city mayors, and the heads of many Dagestan branches of federal agencies. Hundreds were indicted.

Launched in 2019, the “Arashukovs’ affair” appears to be equally grand-scale. It came to a head on January 30 when Karachay-Cherkessia senator Rauf Arashukov was arrested on camera during a Federation Council session, an unprecedented event, especially since it was personally overseen by the head of the Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, and the Prosecutor General, Yuri Chayka. The 32-year-old senator was charged with contracting two assassinations committed in 2010.

Simultaneously, his father, Raul, the Arashukovs’ clan leader and the “gas king of North Caucasus” (Arashukov served as an advisor to the head of Gazprom’s subsidiary company Mezhregiongas) was arrested in St. Petersburg and charged with embezzling over 30 billion rubles. The arrests of the Arashukovs constituted the central episode of an operation that was conducted in 11 cities with the participation of 200 FSB and Investigative Committee operatives; several other top managers of Mezhregiongas were detained. The Arashukovs are one of the most powerful North Caucasus clans and have almost complete control of Karachay-Cherkessia. There is every reason to believe that the “Arashukovs’ affair” will further expand both in Karachay-Cherkessia (rumor has it that the republic's head may be dismissed), while in the case of federal agencies, it may go beyond Mezhregiongas to affect “the Big Gazprom” itself, as well as the Investigative Committee.

Which agencies conduct the repressions? 

"In each particular case, one can identify a proximate cause, such as a conflict among elite members, etc. However, the penal “cudgel” cannot be used without a go-ahead from the 'very top.'"

The key role belongs to the FSB, often involving the Investigative Committee of Russia or the Interior Ministry's investigative department. The Prosecutor's Office and the judiciary also play an important role, but theirs is a more technical one. As I already mentioned, these agencies were unaffected by the first wave of repressions against the leaders of the law-enforcement bloc conducted in 2016. In each particular case, one can identify a proximate cause, such as a conflict among elite members, etc. However, the penal “cudgel” cannot be used without a go-ahead from the “very top.” It is only at that level that a “license to repress” can be issued. The agencies entrusted with criminal investigation collect kompromat on elite members and submit it “up above.” The “inquiries” of competing elites accumulate there and are examined for political expediency.

Here is a concrete example from Kurgan oblast:

Igor Reshetnikov, who headed the Regional Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs from 2011 to 2015, was dismissed and later received a three-year suspended sentence. His two deputies, Andrey Aleshkin and Maksim Shevelev (the head of the Kurgan region Office of MDESCC), were arrested and sentenced to 10 and 9 years, respectively. In 2016, the head of the Kurgan Federal Customs Service, Yuri Kasyanenko, was arrested and sentenced to 3 years. In 2017, based on information provided by the FSB, the head of the Kurgan Penal Correction Service, Ilgiz Ilyasov, was fired.

In his final statement at the trial, Reshetnikov, charged with abuse of office, accused the FSB of providing “protection” for criminal groups in the Trans-Urals: “Having faced this kind of treatment from the prosecutor, (Aleksey) Kiselev, the head of the oblast Procuracy, (Pyotr) Krupenya, and the head of the FSB, (Dmitry) Sivak, who pretend to combat corruption, I declare that I feel let down by my own state.” Reshetnikov pointed out that if his actions were deemed a criminal offense, then law-enforcers should open proceedings against most heads of regional and federal agencies and probably even the highest leadership.

In your view, what is the political rationale for repressions?

Repressions are commonly regarded as a “stick” that has been used more frequently since there has been a shortage of “carrots.” It is often suggested that the “stick” is used by siloviki on their own initiative or that law-enforcement resources can be privatized and used in the interests of a narrow group. This interpretation is not exhaustive. The logic of repressions is not reduced to the economy (that is, it is not simply the result of more intense competition for a shrinking “pie”); it also has a politico-economic aspect, as well as a purely political one.

"After 2014, repressions became feasible: the annexation of Crimea led to a strong consolidation of public support, and a switch from electoral legitimacy to a 'military chieftainship' made elites much more dependent on the leader."

The regime experienced the political necessity for repressions in 2012. Facing mass protests at home and color revolutions abroad, as well as rising confrontation with the West, the Kremlin grew increasingly concerned about the risk of an elite betrayal. After 2014, repressions became feasible: the annexation of Crimea led to a strong consolidation of public support,  and a switch from electoral legitimacy to a “military chieftainship” made elites much more dependent on the leader.

Repressions serve the following functions: intimidation in order to secure absolute loyalty and prevent elite cleavages; the maintenance of an acceptable level of administrative discipline and efficiency; the radical renewal of corporations’ top management (headquarters purge); the facilitation of vertical mobility; the redistribution of assets from outgoing elites to incoming ones; and the maintenance of a competition of sorts in the closed Russian system of governance.

The aging of elites presents a challenge to the Kremlin: how to keep in the system the influence and assets privatized by the heads of large corporations who had occupied their positions for as long as decades. This applies to the Federal Customs Service, the Federal Security Guard Service, and Russian Railroads. Repressions serve as a mechanism of expropriation—either a softer variety (as, for instance, in the case of the omnipotent head of the Federal Security Guard Service, Yevgeny Murov, who peacefully retired “on his own desire” and then his associates were forced to give up a large part of their accumulated capital) or a harder one, with arrests and confiscation of assets.

Depending on the Kremlin's needs, repressions can be sporadic, preventive, or full-fledged, lasting for years with a nation-wide scope and involving hundreds of investigators and operatives. Such full-fledged repressions may lead to a redistribution of authority and resources among large corporations. The case of the Arashukov-Gazprom-Investigative Committee affair is likely to evolve into such a large-scale repression.

It should be emphasized that repressions are not a punishment of more serious offenders, but a signal to an elite group—that is, an authoritarian system's mechanism for communicating, and ensuring loyalty.

In an environment where there are an increasing number of repressions, business and siloviki, as well as other actors, are driven to come up with new “suggestions.” In order for such a suggestion to come to fruition, there must be appropriate political demand. For instance, beneath the arrest of the Baring Vostok investment fund managers lies not so much the use of law-enforcement “resources” to resolve a business dispute, but arguably the political leadership's desire to demonstrate to the United States that if it pressures Russian business for political purposes, Russia may respond in kind. It should be emphasized that repressions are not a punishment of more serious offenders, but a signal to an elite group—that is, an authoritarian system's mechanism for communicating, and ensuring loyalty.

Do the people at large generally approve of prosecutions and harsh sentences for high-ranking officials? Do they work to make the regime leadership more popular?

Since repressions have a demonstrative element to them, their media coverage and public perception are highly important. The coverage is adjusted so as to tap into anti-elite sentiments and a vague desire for change shared by people at large. Yet, repressions are not overrepresented in the media—the government does not overemphasize repressions and is apparently unwilling to stir public passions. Putin personally generally distances himself from high-profile prosecutions and rarely comments on such episodes.

If the Kremlin indeed seeks to avoid high emotions, it appears to achieve this goal. Levada Center polls have shown that the people do not become overagitated about repressions.  

"Repressions are not overrepresented in the media—the government does not overemphasize repressions and is apparently unwilling to stir public passions."

Only a few of the most high-profile arrests have attracted public attention; most of them are barely noticed. It should be pointed out, however, that repressions against elites generally attract more attention than those against political oppositionists and civil society organizations.

Another goal pursued by the government's prosecution of high-ranking officials is to supplant autonomous anti-corruption organizations, such as Aleksey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Fund or Transparency International, in the political field and to promote their own GONGOs.

The elites are not prepared to oppose repressions, and society even less so. A few resistance attempts were made only at a very early stage: in 2014, a group of the Ministry of Internrior generals signed a letter in support of their arrested MDESCC colleagues; the next year, one of the signatories was arrested and convicted of financial improprieties related to the renovations of the Interior Ministry building). In 2015, public protests broke out in response to the arrest of Sakhalin governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin. No more public protests have been staged, either by elites or by the public. An obvious exception were numerous public rallies by theater and, more broadly, intellectual elites in support of theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has been under house arrest since August 2017 (the court trial of the “Seventh Studio affair,” in which he has been implicated, is still ongoing).

Michael Calvey, the founder of private-equity firm Baring Vostok Capital Partners and one of Russia's longest-standing American investors, was arrested last month in Moscow on fraud charges. He maintains his innocence.

Do the unfolding repressions shed some light on how the system operates?

When a government official is charged with a “criminal offense” that is, in fact, a routine operation conducted by any administrator on a daily basis and the facts of the case are exposed in public view, this makes it possible to understand the inner mechanisms and workings of the Russian system, which are normally hidden from the public.

What we have learned is that “ordinary” managers of budget-drawn institutions, including siloviki, possess their own businesses or ones that are entrusted to partners or friends; in the case of siloviki, such businesses are not infrequently semi-legal. Drawing on their administrative resources, they provide assistance to said business, either directly or by pressuring competitors.

“Honest” bosses arrange fictitious jobs for their family members; the same is done by any manager in order to get some cash to be used for extra payments to subordinates or payments for services, etc., which is indispensable to the normal operation of any institution. This means that any administrator may be exposed for engaging in these activities; the military can also be exposed for possessing ammunition.

The system forces administrators to break laws, first in order to ensure normal economic operation, and later probably also for personal enrichment. In addition, the system also pushes law-enforcers and members of controlling agencies to demand that business actors and managers pay them to cover up these violations. 

A quasi-Soviet system of two major verticals—an administrative one and an FSB one—has been reinstated in the regions. The latter’s operation is unchecked either by the public or (in contrast to the Soviet era) by the party organs.

The heads of the FSB Directorates play a key role by collecting kompromat on all high-ranking federal and regional officials, using across-the-board phone-tapping, and by recruiting mid-level law-enforcers and siloviki, whom they threaten with harsh punishment and offer deals if they testify against their bosses. Siloviki are often divided; the Soviet-era conflict between FSB (formerly KGB) and Interior has been reproduced in today’s Russia.

Governors and their deputies in charge of domestic policy force businesses to contribute to the financing of political campaigns and ensure that businesses close to themselves are included in various government programs and assured of loans from state banks.

How does the rise of repressions against elites affect the system?

The rise of repression does not benefit anyone on a regular basis, except maybe a narrow circle of those close to the leader and the “young-and-hungry” who gain better opportunities as repressions create new vacancies.

Repressions against elites undermine public trust in political elites as an institution; they lead to a decline in social capital and further fragmentation among the elites that prevents them not only from organizing resistance, but from any mobilization whatsoever, even to accomplish the goals set by the supreme government authorities. The Kremlin has paralyzed the elites and can do anything it wants to them—but it cannot mobilize them to carry out serious tasks related to national development.

This is not mere theoretical reasoning, but a real factor in political transformation. The failures of pro-Kremlin candidates in September’s regional elections are a good indication: those were the very regions where large-scale anti-elite repressions had been conducted: the Primorsky and Khabarovsk krais, Khakasia, and Vladimir Oblast.

The system, as you describe it, is increasingly reliant on repressions. How will it evolve? 

One of the major outcomes of repressions is the gradual building of a powerful repressive machine that includes many hundreds of operatives and investigators from the FSB, the Investigative Committee, and the Interior Ministry.

The judiciary system plays a significant role in the operation of the repressive machine. Its degradation rules out a substantial improvement in the situation even if repressions per se are stopped. It is no accident that high-ranking judiciary figures are among the longest-serving Russian officials. Vyacheslav Lebedev, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, has held this position since 1989, and the chairperson of the Moscow City Court, Olga Yegorova, who used to be close to former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has occupied her position since 2000.

Thus built, the repressive machine is not only self-propelling, but it has also led to an essential transformation of the law-enforcement system that prevents a slowdown of repressions—at least until the end of the current presidential term in 2024 or until Putin leaves the political stage. The question is whether this might come at the cost of undermining the system's manageability.

Repressions have a powerful inertia. If no new repressions are launched, those that are already underway will last for at least a couple more years. But that's not all there is to it. Repressions generate a kind of corporate immorality that spreads far beyond those directly involved. The rising repressive element of government management is, on the one hand, a natural outcome and, on the other, a mechanism of transition to a harsher authoritarian regime. Repressions are a political institution that is necessary for maintaining a regime of hardening authoritarianism; dismantling it would take a transformation of the very character of the regime. The latter, however, is a long-term and complicated process. 

Nikolai Petrov is the head of the Center for Political- geographic research.