Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 4

By Elena Dikun

On March 28 Russian President Vladimir Putin carried out a reshuffle of his cabinet. Sergei Ivanov was appointed minister of defense; his old job of Security Council secretary went to Vladimir Rushailo, whose previous post as interior minister was taken up in turn by Boris Gryzlov, leader of the Unity party in the Duma. Marshal Igor Sergeev was sent off into honorary retirement as an “aide” to the president. Deputy Security Council secretary Mikhail Fradkov and Tax Police head Vyacheslav Soltaganov swapped jobs. Only one new player was brought into the team–Aleksandr Rumyantsev, who replaced Yevgeny Adamov as atomic energy minister.

Putin presented this job rotation as an impromptu, surprise move–quite out of keeping with his usual style. It is not just his opponents who criticize his indecisiveness; even his closest advisers lament that he is moving at a snail’s pace. In performing this surprise juggling act, Putin was trying to demonstrate that he could be impulsive and unpredictable, to the delight of the public: “Wow, look at him!”

According to our sources, preparations for the reshuffle were made in utmost secrecy. Neither the president’s chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, nor his deputy, Vyacheslav Surkov, considered to be the Kremlin’s chief strategists, were privy to the plans; they were advised only a matter of hours before the impending dismissals and appointments were announced. Similarly, the president did not deem it necessary to consult with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov–in whose domain these important changes were being made–or with Unity leader Sergei Shoigu, from whose ranks Gryzlov was recruited into the government. Defense Minister Sergeev and Interior Minister Rushailo suspected nothing of their imminent fates: They were informed after the relevant decrees had already been signed. Even the new appointees didn’t know when D-Day was: Gryzlov, for example, was in St. Petersburg on March 28, hundreds of miles from the action.

Who then was in the loop? According to our sources, the circle was very small–only of Ivanov and the two Kremlin deputy chiefs of staff, Igor Sechin and Dmitry Kozak. All three of these presidential confidants hail from St. Petersburg. This may be interpreted as a challenge to the old Kremlin team of Voloshin and Surkov thrown down by the new Petersburg recruits (in Moscow there has been too much talk that Putin will not do anything without Voloshin’s blessing); one could even go further and see it as a liberation from the yoke of the “Family.”

At a reception on March 26 in Aleksandr House, where the president was celebrating the first anniversary of his election with his campaign team, several prominent members of the old “Family” and friends of Berezovsky were conspicuous by their absence. Tat’yana Dyachenko, Valentin Yumashev, Mikhail Lesin and Ksenia Ponomaryova had all played a major role in Putin’s victory; they all happened to be out of the country that day, as if on purpose. But this does not sound very convincing: If they had been invited, there can be little doubt that they would have dropped everything and headed straight for Moscow. Given that just two days later Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who had earned himself a solid firm reputation as a Berezovsky man, was ousted from the government, and Soltaganov (an established long-time associate of the Family) and Rushailo (another friend of Berezovsky) were moved sideways, there is no doubt that official personnel policies have begun determinedly hacking apart the Berezovsky clan. It was one thing when Rushailo was in charge of the Defense Ministry (MVD) and controlled all the police forces in the country–regional organized crime units, economic crime units, rapid reaction troops, several divisions of internal troops and reams of secret files on any figure of the slightest importance. But it is another thing altogether to control just the Security Council and to oversee only Chechnya. Apart from this, Rushailo must be angry and hurt that the president has reinstated his sworn enemy Vladimir Vasiliev. Vasiliev was a first deputy minister at the MVD under Anatoly Kulikov and Sergei Stepashin. Under Kulikov he was Rushailo’s immediate superior as head of the Moscow organized crime unit. Relations between them have never been noted for their warmth. First, Kulikov and Vasiliev ousted Rushailo from the Moscow organized crime unit and, then, when Berezovsky made Rushailo a minister, Rushailo pushed Vasiliev out of the MVD. The new Security Council secretary is now unlikely to be able to retain control the MVD, where Gryzlov will be the “political” minister, but the man in charge will actually be Vladimir Vasiliev. It is even harder to contemplate that Putin will allow Rushailo to oversee Sergei Ivanov. That would clearly be going too far.

It very much appears as though the conditions of strict secrecy–Putin was unwilling to involve even the head of the government or his own chief of staff in the reshuffle–were necessary because Kasyanov and Voloshin could have interfered with the implementation of this clear-out. This can therefore be interpreted as a warning to the prime minister and the chief of staff that they are not coming up to scratch in their respective jobs, and are now at the top of the list for ousting. The corridors in and around the Kremlin are already buzzing with the rumor that the most likely successor to Voloshin as chief of staff could be presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky. It is no coincidence that Putin recently appointed him to oversee the entire communications policy of the authorities. Our sources assert that Putin considers Yastrzhembsky to be his own man, because he has known him since his St. Petersburg days and gives due credit to his grip on the bureaucracy.

It is unlikely, however, that the head of state will be in any hurry to launch another round of reshuffles. In any case, there is no need to hurry: The Voloshin-Surkov team has found itself a job which the president and the entire “Petersburg wing” are quite happy with. This job has been actively promoted recently by Kremlin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, and goes under the name of “forming a party of the Putin majority.” Despite the embarrassment surrounding the March plot to dissolve the Duma ahead of time, the Kremlin spinners have not abandoned this plan and are therefore preparing for early parliamentary elections. The architects of the plan see the current situation as anomalous because though the president enjoys the support of 60 percent of voters, he does not have a party which could garner all these votes in an election and provide the head of state with a valid majority in parliament. Hence the idea of a sort of “popular front” which would unite Unity, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) and the new movements Russia and People’s Deputy.

The Kremlin is now contemplating who to appoint to lead this front. The candidacies of Unity leader Sergei Shoigu or Russia leader and Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev are not under consideration. But a great deal is being said about Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak. Given that Prusak is known as a good economic manager, but lacks any public political successes, this may seem to be an odd choice; it can only be explained by the influence of the Petersburg contingent. While they were still based in St. Petersburg, today’s presidential advisers liked to spend their weekends with Prusak in the Valdai region of Novgorod Oblast, and Putin himself was a regular guest; such things are not quickly forgotten. However, it cannot be ruled out that the leader of OVR in the Duma, Yevgeny Primakov, may be offered the job of heading up the popular front.

There are no plans to incorporate the fellow travelers of the Right into the popular front. However, the Kremlin has set itself the task of sorting things out on that flank too. Its ideal scenario would be to dissolve Yabloko into the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and put a reliable leader in charge of this single party of the Right. The prospect of Boris Nemtsov assuming this role does not suit the Kremlin at all: They want a solid ally in the job, not a rebel. However, they are having no success in enticing energy boss Anatoly Chubais or the president’s envoy in the Volga federal district Sergei Kirienko to get involved in the job of party-building. Chubais does not want to let go of the power switch, while Kirienko is only prepared to return to Moscow for a job in the government (not necessarily that of prime minister). Thus it may well be that by the fall, when there is something tangible to the “Putin majority” party, the president will thank Voloshin and co. for their troubles and give them something else to do–look for a new job. But for now their activities are not hampering Putin as he builds up his team.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya Gazeta.