Reassessing Russia's Decision Making Community: Intra-elite Conflicts, Political and Business Networks, and Ideological Constructions | Wilson Center

Reassessing Russia's Decision Making Community: Intra-elite Conflicts, Political and Business Networks, and Ideological Constructions

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"Kremlinology is back with its main theory, which is that the real balances of power remain invisible to the external observer, such that we must have a kind of specific knowledge of the shadowy reality of the Kremlin in order to provide a relevant analysis," argued Marlene Laruelle, Senior Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Studies Program, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center. At a 21 March 2011 Kennan Institute discussion, Laruelle expounded on her research of various analytical approaches to understanding Russian politics.

Laruelle explained that, although there has been an influx of Kremlinologists in the arena of Russian politics, their analytical model is flawed. Kremlinology asserts that the Russian political elite belong to various "clans" within the governmental system and are consistently "at war" with one another. "However, this black and white explanation is far too simplistic and binary to reflect reality," Laruelle noted, as "the clan hypothesis helps little in understanding the reality in contemporary Russia." Despite the inaccuracy of the "clan hypothesis," it is in fact commercially viable for those who analyze Russian politics to subscribe to Kremlinology. "Of course selling information about a war in the Kremlin is commercially more viable than explaining that the consensus between elites is working well," according to Laruelle.

Additional issues exist within the framework of Kremlinology, Laruelle argued. For example, "Kremlinology" implies that the dynamics of Russian politics are specific to the country. However, the "Russian political nature is not so specific," the speaker noted, as politically-elite networks exist in governments throughout the world. Laruelle also cited that the "clan hypothesis" doesn't adequately address Russia's foreign policy issues, as it pits groups against one another, and assigns "good guy" and "bad guy" connotations to ideologically different parties. Finally, she noted that labeling politically elite groups as "clans" implies that the clans' members hold unwavering membership to that group, whereas the reality of the situation indicates that politicians can change their positions on matters at any time.

"The specificity of the Russian situation is, therefore, is not the collusion between private and public interest," Laruelle asserted, "but the fact that all the main decision-makers are part of the same big network, so that the balance is in fact imbalanced." Thus, Laruelle alternatively proposed thinking about the elite of Russian politics as a series of interconnected networks, rather than applying the "clan hypothesis" to the situation. In doing so, Laruelle explained that "we can, therefore, better understand the strategy each of the main figures among the Russian political circles, taking into account the multiplicity of their networks."

Upon citing various examples of how certain Russian political elites are connected through multiple networks, Laruelle noted that "[it's] also important to inquire into the issue of consensus between elites." The speaker explained that, although understanding how an elite individual's interconnectedness within the Russian political network is important, "there is a tendency to consider [a politician's] personality as strategic, but we can wonder if this focus on individuality is really relevant." According to Laruelle, considering that the three major pillars of the intra-elite consensus are the domestic stability, international autonomy, and financial autonomy of Russia; all political elites, despite their networks, understand that the three pillars cannot waver: as Laruelle phrased it, "goodwill is not enough to break the consensus." Indeed, it is unlikely that one elite's individual viewpoint on an issue will affect a consensus if it threatens the integrity of any of the three pillars.

In conclusion, Laruelle assessed how the delicate balance between elites and maintaining the stability of the intra-elite consensus impacts the Russian political system overall. While the current pillars will likely be preserved within politics for now, the speaker explained, an inevitable driver of change that could impact the current political system in place in Russia is the generation issue. Laruelle concluded that, although there are hardly opportunities for young people to get involved in politics now, the aging generation that currently rules the political elite will face imminent changes that may impact Russia's political future.

By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Marlène Laruelle

    Associate Director and Research Professor, Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), Elliott School of International Affairs; Director, Central Asia Program, The George Washington University; Co-Director of PONARS (Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia)