I'll see your conspiracy and raise you -- an even bigger conspiracy.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin analyst who heads the Effective Politics Foundation, raised a few eyebrows last week when he told "Moskovsky komsomolets" that a small "pro-crisis party" is lurking inside the Russian elite and might be plotting "a new little coup.
Pavlovsky said this shadowy cabal -- which includes "big business, people at the summit of federal power circles in the capital, and some governors" -- is planning to stage "a farcical remake" of the August 1991 coup attempt that brought down the Soviet Union or of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
What is the 'pro-crisis' party discussing? The struggle over seriously reduced resources. When there was a lot of money, any faction in power could get a cut of the money flow... But the rivers have become shallow and some people need a shake-up, which, on the one hand, will enable them to write off losses to the old regime and, on the other, to gain unrestricted access to the new one...I repeat, if one is looking for sources of social protest in Russia, seek them in the corridors of power.
The goal, according to Pavlovsky, would be to remove Russia's de facto ruler, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Enter Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist and political analyst.
Back in November, he wrote an article in the daily "Vedomosti" warning that anti-government riots similar to those that took place in Novocherkassk back in 1962 were possible as workers in single-factory towns reeled from the economic crisis. At the time, "Vedomosti" received a warning from the authorities that the article could be considered "incitement to extremism."
So what does Gontmakher think of Pavlovsky's assessment that rogue elements in the elite -- and not disgruntled workers and angry citizens -- might provoke anti-government protests? In remarks reported by the "Financial Times," he called Pavlovky's warning "an attempt to consolidate the elite." In other words, Pavlovsky's comments were a carefully planted diversionary leak to scare the elite and the bureaucracy into maintaining unity as the very real threat of real social unrest rises.
Over at Robert Amsterdam's blog, James called this the "scared straight" theory, adding:
We don't really buy it - it seems far too risky for the Russian government to willingly encourage rumors of its own divisions and the possibility of all the bureaucrats losing their slightly diminished piece of the corruption pie as a way to instill some discipline. The chance that such a strategy could backfire seems much too high to me, but this is where we have arrived to in the Kremlinology debate. People who know an awful lot about Russia are actually speculating that all bad news is actually good news and vice versa. The only conclusion I can draw from this outcome of contradictory political banter is that there is zero consensus over a plan for the economic crisis, and that the authoritarian capitalist model which has developed in Russia over the past decade is rather inflexible in terms of handling emergencies.
I'm not sure what to make of all this just yet. As we have written here numerous times, declining oil revenues are undoubtedly causing very real divisions in the elite and discontent in society at large. As Pavlovsky correctly points out, there just isn't enough money to buy off everybody's loyalty anymore.
And as a recent poll by the independent Levada Center shows, the public is getting pretty restless as living standards decline.
Is it a leap to claim, as Pavlovsky does, that disgruntled elements in the elite could be plotting a coup using social unrest as a cover? It would hardly be the first time such a thing has happened.
Is it an even bigger leap to say, as Gontmakher does, that warnings about such a potential coup are part of an elaborate ruse to scare said elite into behaving itself? Kremlin spin doctors are, after all, masters of subterfuge and diversion. And Pavlovsky rarely says anything for public consumption -- let alone something this explosive -- without a reason.
In one of the most prescient comments I have ever heard from a Russian political analyst, Boris Kagarlitsky of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements once told me the following: "The question in Russia is never: Is there a conspiracy afoot? The proper question is: Whose conspiracy is succeeding?"