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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intrigues and Influence: U.S. Diplomat Has Key

The article two weeks ago by U.S. Embassy First Secretary Thomas Graham in Nezavisimaya Gazeta has ruffled a lot of feathers in Russian diplomatic circles. But it also deserves attention as a pretty good view of what the U.S. administration thinks about the upcoming elections.

The most striking thing about the article is that it drops the idea, popular in the West since the start of reforms, that Russia is engaged in a contest between progressive reform and a return to communism.

Instead, the basic analysis of the article is that Russia is now effectively ruled by a number of competing but co-existing clans from different rich lobby groups who mount Byzantine intrigues for power and favors.

Graham mentions four groups which are the key forces in today's dispirited Russia but adds that many smaller ones also play a role:

1. The fuel and energy lobby headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin whose power base is Gazprom, the gas monopoly.

2. A pro-Western group headed by former reformer Anatoly Chubais who controls the privatization ministry and most contact with international financial institutions.

3. Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin's personal bodyguard, and colorless deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets, who control the Kremlin apparatus, the FSB and some sectors of the military-industrial complex.

4. A Moscow big-money and banks lobby linked closely with Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

According to Graham, these dominant clans have used the ideological vacuum after the end of communism to take hold of power and use it to their benefit, getting favors like tax breaks or state property.

The problem for all the clans is that they have no hold on the hearts of the masses. "The elections will give opportunities to forces on the periphery of the clan system, such as the communists and the ultranationalists, to gain access to key political institutions, which they could then use to re-examine the existing division of property and political power."

Graham says the issue for these elections is the indication they will provide of whether the clans can secure the victory of an acceptable candidate at the more important presidential elections next June.

Option 1 is winning the election of their own candidate. This will be tough. The clans have little popular appeal. They can promise stability and continuity, which may be dear to some Russians after a decade of upheaval. For the moment, the clans are spending millions of dollars on advertising to boost their candidates over their rivals.

The second option is that, even if they do not get their best choice, the clans will co-opt parties like the Communists that are now a potential threat. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is clearly pulling toward an arrangement with the lobby groups, but his old-guard membership may be hard to convince. The Congress of Russian Communities is clearly co-optable into the clan system.

Either Option 1 or Option 2 are the most likely. But Graham says it is possible the clans may not be able to secure an acceptable presidential candidate in fair elections.

If the wash-up from the parliamentary elections points that way, Graham warns that the clans in power do not have a deep belief in democracy. The obvious hint is that if communists or ultranationalists win big and cannot be cowed into a compromise, we could expect to see some suppression of Russia's five-year-old democracy before next year's presidential elections.

Geoff Winestock is a Moscow-based correspondent for the Journal of Commerce.