From Republic.ru, March 24, 2022, https://republic.ru/posts/103416. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – . . . Experts and the general public alike view a palace coup (not necessarily with a bloody outcome) as a theoretically possible scenario for a change of power in Russia. One popular opinion is that if you replace whoever is “on the throne,” a lot of problems will disappear because they are directly tied to that person. Is a palace coup possible in Russia? What could it look like? Republic discussed this with political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
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‘As for the military and security elites, they are also in shock over what’s going on.’
Question. – How has the domestic political situation changed in the first month of the “special operation?” Has it gone beyond certain boundaries beyond which there can be no [return to] “business as usual”?
Answer. – I believe that the major trends we saw before the “special operation” will return soon. It needs to be understood that none of their root causes has been eliminated. [These include] discord between society, which demands the right to participate in shaping political decisions, and the authoritarian regime; a stagnating economy; corruption; and a huge gap in income and living standards between the elites and the general population. These factors have not gone anywhere. Yes, right now society is shocked, and these things have been put on the back burner. But that is only temporary. Gradually, people will begin to adapt to the situation, and the “special operation” will go from the main event that overshadows everything to informational background noise – just like Afghanistan or Chechnya. Eventually, people will start to think more or less logically, and the old sentiments will return, exacerbated by the dire economic situation.
If only a third of the forecasts regarding the collapse of the Russian economy end up materializing, people will notice a sharp decline in living standards in the next couple of months. This problem will increasingly take over their thinking. People will stop thinking about NATO, the US and Ukraine, as well as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s other pet topics. Such everyday problems as [high] prices, unemployment and medication shortages are going to come to the fore. That’s when the trend toward protest sentiment and the regime’s falling popularity, which dominated [the agenda] the last few years, will once again manifest themselves. Even today, the effect of rallying around the flag is fairly limited, and it will soon disappear completely.
Plus, you need to understand that all these returning negative trends will be compounded by the feeling of general isolation – the whole world is against us. This will naturally strike a huge blow to Russians’ self-identity: All the bravado will disappear, since it’s clear that no one has ever won a war against the whole world. I think the Kremlin is already sensing this fear of isolation; that’s why it came up with the idea of [inviting] Middle Eastern volunteers [to fight in Ukraine – Trans.]. It’s clear that from a military standpoint, the Arab [volunteers] are useless. But the authorities have latched on to them to show that we are not alone; we are not isolated. Now we are seeing pro-Russian rallies being orchestrated in Syria – all to show people that we have allies. [But] it will be difficult to pull this off with a handful of Syrians.
Q. – One Russian regime change scenario that’s been discussed for many years and especially now is a palace coup – “a snuffbox and a scarf” [reference to the assassination of Emperor Paul I of Russia – Trans.]. In your opinion, which groups close to the head of state are currently suffering the most from his actions and may venture to do something like that?
A. – Yes, the elites are unhappy, and the chances of the scenario you mentioned are growing exponentially. It’s possible to distinguish two sets of reasons for such discontent. The first applies to civilian [elites] and the second to military ones. First, you need to understand that Putin just went from the guarantor of stability, high social status and prosperity to a destabilization factor. Instead of a peaceful old age somewhere in Nice, members of the Russian establishment are now looking at the possibility of living out the rest of their lives in a prison cell in The Hague. When the whole world is against you, such a scenario stops being the stuff of fiction and suddenly becomes fairly realistic. Of course, not everyone will end up in prison, but even those who avoid jail are quickly turning into outcasts and pariahs whose accounts are being frozen. Just look at [Billionaire Mikhail] Fridman. This is of course a new factor that did not exist in Russian politics before. Until now, individual members of the establishment could have been upset with Putin, but not all of them as a class.
As for the military and security elites, they are also in shock over what’s going on. And once that shock wears off, comprehension will start to dawn: How is it that the glorious Russian Army, which was considered invincible, couldn’t handle the Ukrainians, whose [Armed Forces] were never taken seriously? You can imagine how military officials feel, who rattled their sabers for 20 years during military parades and flexed their muscles on television screens.
The nation is in for a serious debriefing about who is to blame for what happened. The military is not a segment of society that’s prone to self-reflection. They are not into self-flagellation like the intelligentsia. They are not going to say: “Yes, we are to blame for everything; we destroyed and plundered everything.” No military leadership is inclined toward such behavior, least of all in Russia, a country not prone to self-criticism. Usually, military officials prefer to blame “politicians”: “They are the ones who dragged us into this misadventure, this fratricidal war. After all, we couldn’t really use all weapons at our disposal against our fellow Slavs.” There is no doubt that the military will blame politicians for this fiasco. And Russia has only one politician – Putin.
So these two factors of discontent absolutely must be taken into consideration. Of course, I’m not saying that the regime will fall tomorrow. I think that it will last until 2024. Putin still has a serious support base: Its core is about 10%-12% [of the population], as well as support from the regions – about 20%. Together, that’s about a third of all voters. A third of the population, plus the security establishment is a formidable political force. Of course, it will erode, but that’s a gradual process; it doesn’t happen overnight.
I don’t really believe in a coup in its purest form. The Russian elite may be unhappy with Putin, but they fear him. . . .
There are other types of coups, such as when the elites overthrow an unpopular ruler not to help the opposition seize power, but instead to hang on to it – if not entirely then at least partially. History has seen dozens of such examples in Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Recently, [Kazakh President Kasym-Zhomart] Tokayev orchestrated something similar against [former Kazakh president Nursultan] Nazarbayev [see Vol. 74, No. 1‑2, pp. 10‑15, and Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 17‑19].
Overall, you need to understand that all the institutional pieces are in place for the military to make a sudden foray into politics. In political science, this is called praetorianism.
Its driving factor is the destruction of all the main political institutions that in other countries exist to ensure that civic groups can promote their political interests. . . .
Putin has been working to destroy [those institutions] for years. The parliament, the courts, the prosecution system, the legal system, the media, unions, elections, federalism – you name it, they are all just window dressing. An absolutely noninstitutional political environment has been created in the country, and civic forces cannot promote their political interests via these institutions. That means they have no choice but to act directly. And here, everyone uses whatever tools they have at their disposal. A worker goes on strike, a student takes to the street, a politician starts plotting and a security official picks up his weapon.
‘The Hague is far away, while Putin is right here.’
. . . Nevertheless, I am inclined to believe that Putin still has a relatively stable support base. And as I’ve said, that’s a third of the population, so the elites won’t risk a coup [right now]. [First,] they must feel that the political dynamics have changed dramatically. For instance, Khrushchev was overthrown only when his popularity actually started to decline, and public demand for a power transfer emerged. . . .
When I say that the system will still manage to remain in place, I also mean something else: Until recently, the biggest factor undermining the system’s stability was a demand for change. And now, thanks to all these events, that is no longer the case. The previously oppressive feeling of stagnation has disappeared. Now, on the contrary, one gets the feeling that we’re hurtling somewhere at a fantastic speed – and it’s not clear whether it’s up or down. But once people get used to the situation a little, when the shock wears off, that’s when it will begin to dawn on them that nothing has really changed in the country: Putin is still in the Kremlin, the economy is still in a hole, living standards are falling, officials are stealing, the gap between the rich and poor is growing and all of this is being accompanied by now-tiresome talk about Russia as the stronghold of traditional values.
In general, it will take time for Putin’s social base to begin to disintegrate and for the elite to pick up on this tendency. However, certain completely radical scenarios cannot be ruled out. For example, [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu could refuse to carry out Putin’s order to launch a nuclear strike on Poland. He may call [Federal Security Service head Aleksandr] Bortnikov; together, they would loop in the prosecutor general, who would issue some sort of warrant; and they would go and arrest Putin. Could this happen? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dare say it can’t. Nothing can be ruled out in Russia anymore. Nevertheless, that’s a very radical scenario. Meanwhile, the 2024 scenario looks much more realistic to me.
Q. – How do you view the fact that both the US Senate and the [US] president have called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” “murderous dictator” and “pure thug” [see Vol. 74, No. 11, pp. 19‑20]. And this is only the beginning. What does this mean for him and how could it affect Russian domestic policy?
A. – Naturally, such things have a strong impact on the mood of the elite. For now, it’s not having much of an impact on the average voter, but members of the establishment can feel how Russia is becoming a very real pariah and outcast – and the establishment along with it. The Russian elite used to have every confidence that they were respectable people who were respected by other respectable people. And now it turns out that they are criminals and accomplices of a murderous regime. Naturally, this is shocking.
But people who are in a state of shock are rarely capable of organized actions – aside from fleeing. So I don’t expect any bold feats from the Russian elite just yet. The Hague is far away, while Putin is right here. If he is prepared to start a “special operation” for the sake of some completely contrived and far-fetched ideas, just imagine what he’ll do to any of his close associates he considers traitors. You also need to understand that members of the Russian elite don’t have the skill for collective action; they have always survived as individuals, betraying one another. Permanent alliances and sincere relationships are a rare thing for them. And a conspiracy requires trust among its participants. . . .
‘No matter what, Putin will get the blame.’
Q. – This time, the West introduced unprecedented sanctions. Now, they don’t just concern individual officials and enterprises; they are total sanctions against all of Russian society. Many will be surprised [and wonder]: Why us, what did we do? But apparently the West decided to create something of a global drunk tank to get rid of the intoxication of imperialism for all of Russian society. In your opinion, is it possible to get Russian society to sober up?
A. – This will clearly have a negative impact on people’s social well-being. And such things are always damaging to the regime. By 2024, the trend will be quite clear. Of course, the Kremlin will try to point the finger at the West, but that will not work indefinitely; at some point, questions for the regime will arise: Why did you get into a fight [with the West] if you are now unable to deal with the consequences of its actions?
No matter what, Putin will get the blame in the end – he was the one who couldn’t resolve the situation so that people wouldn’t have to suffer. And there won’t be any rallying around the national leader. Many [in Russia] like to use Iran as an example, saying: “Look, [Western sanctions] only consolidate Iranian society.” That’s nonsense, they’re not consolidating anyone. Protest sentiment is growing in Iran; it is getting deeper and more radical. Since around 2017-2018, it has become increasingly antiestablishment. In 2011, residents of Tehran still shouted “Allahu akbar!” when protesting, but now they are shouting “Death to the mullahs!” The regime is coping [with such protests] purely through force, with more and more bloodshed. But there is absolutely no stability for the system; it could collapse at any moment. And, I repeat, the people are not rallying around the regime. And people in Russia won’t, either. We will see a growing demand for change: for alternative ideologies, scenarios, leaders.
Q. – Since elections may trigger major social discontent, do you think they are possible this year? We have read more than once that elections may be canceled.
A. – Regional and local elections are extremely disadvantageous for the Kremlin now. After all, by their very nature, they always focus on domestic problems. And right now, it is important for the Kremlin to keep society’s attention on foreign policy – on NATO, Ukraine, the US and so on. But gubernatorial candidates in some place like Tambov Province can’t talk about NATO [on the campaign trail – Trans.]. They will still have to talk about local problems: investments, jobs, construction projects, incomes, social programs. If you take in the overall picture, then yes, presumably elections will be canceled.
But on the other hand, canceling elections is also a risky move. First, it’s a highly unpopular decision in itself. People want the right to somehow influence the government, the right to occasionally express their approval or disapproval. Yes, at one point, Putin canceled gubernatorial elections and the people did not revolt. But there’s one fundamental difference: At the time, his star was ascending, and people believed that he was capable of improving their lives, so they gave him a broad mandate – do what you want, we won’t argue. Now, there can be no talk of such a mandate. People no longer trust Putin to protect their interests because they know he doesn’t care about them.
Last but not least, if elections are canceled, it will indicate that the country is facing a force majeure, and the Kremlin is trying to convince people that the opposite is true: Everything is going according to plan. A force majeure will only exacerbate anxiety in society, maybe even creating panic. So calling off the elections is a double-edged sword. It’s still unclear what [the Kremlin] will decide to do in the end.