The more the Russian opposition accuses the government of corruption, the more the Kremlin will search for anti-corruption targets within the liberal elites.

Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev at Moscow's Basmanny Court. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a different take read: "Russia's top economic minister faces criminal charges for bribe solicitation"

The arrest of Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukaev on charges that he solicited a bribe from the Rosneft oil company has become the most scandalous anti-corruption case in the entire history of post-Soviet Russia.

Yet it would be wrong to claim that it was totally unexpected. On the contrary, the detention of Ulyukaev became the logical continuation of a series of other arrests, involving regional governors, law enforcement representatives and low-ranking governmental officials.

With the arrest of Ulyukaev, the anti-corruption campaign in Russia is in full swing. It’s hard to ignore the fact, though, that this campaign definitely has a political character to it. It is not a matter of officials taking more bribes — it is a matter of creating a political routine to publicly punish those officials.

What are the reasons behind this stance? Is it the result of a rivalry within the Kremlin’s inner circle or an attempt by the authorities to neutralize accusations of corruption coming from members of the opposition? Or is it just the purge of old and experienced political players before the start of a new strategic course? Or could be it a matter of President Vladimir Putin’s personal dissatisfaction with certain officials, who might have said something wrong or didn’t behave in accordance with certain unwritten rules?

Anyway, there could be one answer to all of these questions: “Yes.” Yet every situation has its own peculiarities. In some cases, there is the cutthroat rivalry between different political clans. In other situations, there is the Kremlin’s intention to publicly punish officials and show that no one is immune to criminal charges. Sometimes, the anti-corruption campaign turns into a way to handle personal conflicts or settle scores with rivals.

In comparison with other members of the Russian government, Economic Minister Ulyukaev was more conspicuous, at least because sometimes he dared to express independent, non-mainstream views and could even contradict the President’s view. For the past few months, he has publicly warned against the uncertain prospects of the Russian economy.

Moreover, he was a representative of the liberal wing of Russia’s ruling elite and was proud of his longstanding collaboration with prominent political figure Yegor Gaidar, the first Prime Minister of post-Soviet Russia and the architect of the 1990s liberalization program, a series of liberal economic reforms in the country.

Of course, amidst the prolonged economic crisis and increasing public indignation, a figure like Ulyukaev looks like an excellent candidate to become a sacrificial lamb. His arrest is a good asset in the hands of the Kremlin to explain to Russians the reasons behind the failures in the economy: “What did you expect if the Economic Minister turns out to have been corrupt?”

All this indicates that it won’t be an easy time ahead for the so-called “systemic liberals”- the liberals who are inside, not outside, the government. Yet Ulyukaev has never been the leader among these liberals, he was just a typical official who happened to ascend to the top of the ranks.

The financial and economic department, controlled by liberal officials, is hardly likely to work more efficiently now, taking into account the current political and psychological environment. After all, there are hints from the Federal Security Service (FSB) that the arrest of Ulyukaev won’t be the last. Understandably, that produces a sort of chilling effect.

Some argue that the arrest of Ulyukaev stems from his personal conflict with Igor Sechin, the head Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft, and perhaps even with Putin himself. However, this explanation seems to be oversimplified. After all, the conflicts within the Russian elites have been always common, yet only recently have they ended up with arrests or criminal charges against high-ranking officials.

This is how the subtle logic of authoritative regimes really works. Having been at the helm for the past 16 years, Putin is reluctant to hand over his power to others and now he is forced to resort to “purges” to maintain the balance within the system, which he created.

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Historically, the traditional reasons that drove many Russian rulers, including Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Tsar Ivan the Terrible, to launch “purges” among elites, have included paranoia, fear of conspiracy or the desire to satisfy the interests of the mob. However, in addition to these factors, new ones have also an impact on Russia’s politics and they are related primarily to global political trends.   

Today the most popular topic among foreign policy experts is the so-called “rebellion against the establishment,” which was embodied by the Brexit (the UK exit from the European Union), the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the successes of populist parties in some European countries.

Surprisingly, Putin succeeded in adjusting to this right-wing populist trend. In fact, many foreign populist campaigners see him as almost as the world’s main anti-globalist, anti-American figure, who is allegedly fighting with the hypocritical international elite. Russia’s policy in Crimea and Syria proved that, unlike other populists who criticize Washington, Putin is ready to match his words with actions. He is ready to act decisively. This is how European right-wing politicians see him. 

However, inside Russia, Putin embodies the establishment and, ironically, the power of the populist rebellion, which boosted his image outside the country, might result in a backlash inside Russia. One day the people’s riot could turn against his own system, like it was in 2011-2012, when thousands of Russians took the streets to express their indignation against the ruling party United Russia, which opposition and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny described as “the party of crooks and thieves.”

However, it was liberals who turned against Putin, not the right-wing populists. This has been so far the key difference between the situations in Europe and the U.S. on the one hand and Russia - on the other.   

Thus, Putin turned the political weapons of the liberals against them. The more accusations against the President and his clique came from liberals, the more extensive the Kremlin-led anti-corruption campaign became. In fact, this campaign helped Putin ward off the opposition’s accusations of the president being the representative of the corrupt and hypocritical elite.

Instead, Putin created the image of a figure who defends the people’s interests, and fights against the abuse of power, foreign agents and the fifth column. Thus, Putin’s attempts were successful.

In 2015-2016, when a series of exposés against Putin and his inner circle was published (including the scandalous Panama Papers and Navalny's investigation into the activity of Yuri Chaika, Russia Prosecutor General), the Kremlin announced a crusade against corruption. However, law enforcement agencies did not start prosecuting those accused of corruption by activists.

In fact, almost all criminal charges were made against either unknown political figures or well-known systemic liberals, including the governor of the Kirov Region, Nikita Belykh. And today it is Ulyukaev’s turn. Navalny himself is also among the targets of the law enforcement officials: He faced criminal charges in several cases between 2011 and 2015.

Also read: "Inside the power struggle within the Russian elite"

Obviously, Putin’s majority, which resembles the supporters of Trump, views this anti-corruption campaign with a great deal of satisfaction. With liberal activists and officials enjoying no mercy from the majority, the approval rankings of the President are rising. And nobody cares about the fact that trials are initiated by those accused of corruption and more serious power abuses.

Today, at least, Putin will have a good answer, if asked about the lack of anti-corruption rigor in the country. “What else do you want, if we even arrested the economic minister?” he might say. Yet this could not be enough for people, looking for more sacrifices and scapegoats for their problems. And this is the challenge, because there are few liberals left in the government.

This means that all representatives of Putin’s environment should be concerned no matter what political views they might espouse. The only way to get immunity from the Kremlin-initiated prosecution is to face accusations from Navalny, the head of the Anti-Corruption Fund. After all, Putin won’t betray the members of his inner circle even for the sake of strengthening his image as the campaigner against international elites.   

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.