The general consensus about the personnel changes in the Kremlin administration and cabinet of ministers that have been made in the week and a half since Dmitry Medvedev was inaugurated president and Vladimir Putin was named his prime minister is that the reshuffle has meant a weakening of the so-called siloviki. This is a group of security service veterans said to be informally headed by Igor Sechin, the former deputy Kremlin chief of staff who is now a deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector and industry (see EDM, May 14).
Along with Sechin’s transfer from the Kremlin to the Russian White House, the personnel changes saw other key siloviki shifted to other positions. Nikolai Patrushev was removed as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and made secretary of the advisory Security Council; Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of the FSB’s economic security department, has replaced Patrushev as FSB chief; another leading KGB veteran and long-time associate, Viktor Ivanov, was transferred out of the position of presidential aide to replace Viktor Cherkesov as head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN); and Vladimir Ustinov was transfer from the post of Justice Minister to that of presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District.
These changes have meant “the breakup” of the siloviki, Ekspert magazine wrote in its latest issue. “The appointment of Igor Sechin as deputy prime minister for industry and energy … guarantees that he will retain the influence on the raw materials business that he has already acquired,” the weekly wrote. “But at the same time, within the bounds of the government that influence will be to a large degree formalized and limited. Whether Sechin will widen his influence beyond the boundaries of the raw materials branches will now depend on economically defined results: last week he was appointed chairman of the board of directors of the United Shipbuilding Corporation,” Russia’s state shipbuilding holding (Ekspert, May 19). In a separate article in its latest issue, Eskpert wrote that the personnel changes at the top, including Sechin’s transfer, marked “the start of a new political epoch” in which legal methods will gradually replace the use of force in the fight for power and property (Ekspert, May 19).
Some observers have also pointed to the fact that Sechin was not made head of the government apparatus, as had been widely predicted, and that he was given the rank of a mere deputy prime minister (Viktor Zubkov and Igor Shuvalov are Prime Minister Putin’s only two first deputies) as evidence of his diminished power. Others, however, have warned against using such personnel changes as reliable indicators of power shifts. Konstantin Merzlikin, who headed the government apparatus in 2003 and 2004, dismissed as “conjecture” the idea that Sechin was made a simple deputy prime minister rather than head of the government apparatus as a the result of an agreement between Putin and Medvedev, who has reportedly had bad relations with Sechin. “Under such a powerful prime minister, formal factors are of little consequence,” Merzlikin said. “What will have significance is who is more often in Putin’s office” (Novaya gazeta, May 15).
Still others have questioned how much power the siloviki have lost collectively. Immediately after the composition of the new cabinet was made public, former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said that it represented the same government and administration that had existed during Putin’ presidency except with a more substantial siloviki representation. “That is, the turn toward the siloviki, the turn toward Igor Ivanovich Sechin, Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev, Aleksandr Bortnikov and others coming from the special services has become even stronger, and in that sense the government has become much less liberal,” Ryzhkov said, adding that he thought the cabinet appointments represented a “complete victory” for the siloviki (“Vremya politiki,” RFE/RL Russian Service, May 12).
Nonetheless, an interview given by Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky has heightened the sense that the tide may be turning against Sechin and the siloviki and also, perhaps, against Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year prison term on fraud and tax evasion charges and is awaiting trial on embezzlement and money laundering charges that could lead to a new sentence of up to 27 years, told The Sunday Times that Sechin was behind both cases against him. “He orchestrated the first case against me out of greed and the second out of cowardice,” Khodorkovsky said. Sechin heads the state oil company Rosneft, which took over most of Yukos’ assets.
As the Sunday Times noted, Khodorkovsky’s fate is now seen as a litmus test for Dmitry Medvedev. “The outcome of my case depends on the speed with which reform [of] the judicial system, which Medvedev has said he wants, will take place,” Khodorkovsky told the newspaper. “In an independent court only a complete idiot would swallow the kind of case brought against me. Unfortunately, reforms don’t happen overnight, but some steps taken by Medvedev’s team are cause for cautious optimism.”