Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?
The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.
Who’s out? The old and the dirty?
It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).
On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”
Who’s in? The uniformed…?
Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.
New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.
But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.
But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.
Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.
…Or just the trusted and efficient?
Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.
Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.
So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.
With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)
Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.