A huge bureaucratic surprise occurred in Moscow on February 15 when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced new appointments in the government, typically providing very little explanation for his sovereign decisions.
Most attention was focused on defense minister Sergei Ivanov’s elevation from deputy to first deputy prime minister. He now is equal in rank with Dmitry Medvedev, which perfectly aligns Putin’s two presumed “successors” (Vremya novostei, February 16; Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 17).
Some astute commentators pointed to the minor triumph of Prime Minster Mikhail Fradkov, who managed to promote his man, the government chief-of-staff Sergei Naryshkin, to the post of deputy prime minister (Ekho Moskvy, February 16). Indeed, Fradkov was positively jubilant while presiding over the government meeting on Friday, February 16 and giving instructions to the two first deputy and two deputy prime ministers in his expanded cabinet (Kommersant, February 17). The most obvious loser in this reshuffling was Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref; Ivanov won Gref’s authority to develop industrial policy and Naryshkin took his authority to control foreign trade. Symbolically, Gref was absent at the Friday meeting, at which the last instructions were issued to Sochi authorities before the arrival of inspectors from the International Olympic Committee (Newsru, February 18).
Russian media is full of comments about the new equilibrium between Ivanov and Medvedev in the presidential race. However, there are three less obvious — but probably more meaningful — implications of this round of Kremlin “musical chairs.” First, Putin has proven yet again that he is the “decider” and should not be mistaken for a lame duck. While he has not fired anybody this time around, he has shown that the power to reward and punish remains entirely in his hands (Grani.ru, February 16). Not only did he gain some maneuvering room by pitting the two key contenders so neatly against each other, he also demonstrated his ability to pull yet another surprise and reserved the option to appoint a “dark horse” as prime minister and fresh favorite in the contest. Since the political elite has finally accepted as fact that Putin is really going to step down next year, announcing the “difficult decision” to accept a third term could be a perfect surprise indeed (Expert, February 5).
Second, this round of promotions strengthened the influence of the clique of chekists from St. Petersburg led by presidential aides Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov. Anatoly Serdyukov, who replaced Sergei Ivanov as defense minister, is believed to have close ties to this group, and Naryshkin is known to be “Sechin’s man” in the government (Gazeta.ru, February 16). In a less visible — but no less significant — bureaucratic development, Putin has recently put Viktor Ivanov in charge of the newly organized inter-department group for fighting corruption, which arms him with a probe to thrust into any high- or mid-level official (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 6). This group also controls the new court case against jailed Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which is a matter of serious personal importance for Putin (Vedomosti, February 8). The key driving force behind the new rise of chekisty, however, is the “Litvinenko affair.” The mysterious death of the former Russian spy has become a perfect trap for Putin, who remains in denial but cannot wipe clean the radioactive trail leading to the Federal Security Service (New Times, February 12).
Third, and perhaps the most surprising twist in the bureaucratic “upgrade,” was the appointment of a new defense minister that left the top brass scratching their heads over “Who is Mr. Serdyukov?” His main achievement in his previous position as director of the Federal Tax Service was imposing the enormous charges for tax evasion on the oil giant Yukos, and nothing in the undistinguished biography of a former furniture shop manager could prepare him for the responsibility of leading the armed forces. The retired generals, who are not quite content to see a civilian minister, do not hide their outrage that a figure with no political weight and without any personal ties to the president has been chosen (Ezhednevny zhurnal, February 16). The inevitable conclusion is that Putin does not want to put a person with independent ambitions in charge of the army, but he is prepared to grant more authority to the General Staff led by Yuri Baluyevsky, a good professional with little experience in commanding troops.
Many commentators speculate that Sergei Ivanov is probably quite relieved to escape from the Defense Ministry, even if the new high-profile job gives him a staff of only a dozen aides and secretaries and shrinks his capacity to generate news (Vedomosti, February 16). The problem with his old job was not merely the negative publicity related to the rotten military culture where hazing (dedovshchina) has acquired such extreme forms as forcing young recruits into male prostitution (Newsru.com, February 12). More difficult to explain away are the meager results of implementing the ambitious program of modernization and rearmament that Ivanov presented to the State Duma earlier this month (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, February 9). Military expenditures during Ivanov’s six years increased more than three times, but instead of a bigger bang for this buck, the military-industrial complex emanates only pathetic squeaks. The recent tests of the much-advertised Bulava strategic missile were unsuccessful, the long promised tactical missile Iskander and surface-to-air missile complex C-400 are not ready for deployment, and the annual delivery of new weapon systems amounts to only a few dozen items (Globalrus, February 8).
This fictitious military might be able to serve some PR purposes but would certainly never support a new round of the Cold War. The commentators who interpreted Putin’s assertive speech in Munich as a turn towards real confrontation definitely got it wrong, since his “multipolar” vision amounts to nothing more than a plea to refrain from interfering in palace intrigues. His chekisty prefer to discard the rejected contenders as too soft against “hostile encirclement,” and he is eager to oblige.