Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 221

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s emergency situations minister and leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity party, appears to be in political trouble. Last week, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov publicly took Shoigu to task for the misappropriation of state funds which allegedly took place inside his ministry. Speaking to Emergency Situations Ministry personnel on November 22, Kasyanov charged that the ministry had misused various state funds and that both the Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS) and the Finance Ministry had an “insufficient control mechanism” for overseeing such funds. For his part, Shoigu said that while some of the MChS’s funds had been misused in some regions, the money had been eventually returned (Moscow Times, November 24). Since Kasyanov’s demarche, Shoigu’s position appears to have become even more precarious. The newspaper Segodnya today quoted an anonymous source in the presidential administration as saying that Prosecutor General’s Office had “questions” concerning the MChS, which, according to the paper, involve either financial violations within the ministry or the fact that Shoigu is–in violation of Russian law–both a government minister and a leader of a political party (Segodnya, November 28). Last weekend, Moskovsky komsomolets, citing “informed sources,” reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office had informed Shoigu of this illegality and suggested that he vacate one of the posts. Ironically, Shoigu himself earlier this year complained about holding both posts and asked the Kremlin to indicate which one they wanted to see him occupy (Moskovsky komsomolets, November 25).

As is usually the case in Russian politics, Shoigu’s real sins appear to be political rather than legal. According to Segodnya, senior officials from the presidential administration have openly expressed antipathy toward Shoigu, whom they accuse of being “unmanageable.” The paper reported that even a year ago a top Kremlin administration official had predicted that President Vladimir Putin and Shoigu would not be able to “coexist” on “one political platform” because they would not be able to share the informal leadership of Unity (Segodnya, November 28). Likewise, it reported that the presidential administration was displeased by Shoigu’s frequent “deviations from the general line.” Specifically, the newspaper reported that while Unity, at the Kremlin’s direction, has collectively decided to back Roman Abramovich, the well-known oligarch who reportedly controls the Sibneft oil company, in his race for the governorship of Chukotka, Shoigu announced that he was backing the region’s incumbent governor, Aleksandr Nazarov (Moskovsky komsomolets, November 25; Russian agencies, October 29). The website reported last week that Shoigu had come into conflict with the Security Council, the powerful presidential advisory body headed by Sergei Ivanov, a close Putin associate and fellow KGB veteran, over its suggestions to downsize the Emergency Situations Ministry and “optimize” its financing (Russian agencies, November 24).

Unity was created late last year–reportedly the brainchild of then Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky–as an alternative to the anti-Kremlin Fatherland-All Russia and a political platform for Vladimir Putin, then prime minister. It did very well in last December’s parliamentary elections, coming in second place, behind the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). More recently, however, cracks have appeared in its edifice. A newspaper reported last month that the presidential administration viewed Unity with a “mixture of pragmatism, cynicism, and contempt” and that Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky had proposed turning the People’s Deputy faction of the State Duma into a pro-Putin party, which had caused “panic” within Unity (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 19). A short time later, during Unity’s second congress, Shoigu charged that some members of its faction in the State Duma had “resorted to direct blackmailing during the passage of some laws” while others had behaved like “prostitutes,” going with “whoever pays.” Shoigu said such persons should be purged from the party (Russian agencies, October 28). Last week, Sergei Popov, chairman of Unity’s executive committee, and Boris Gryzlov, head of its Duma faction, met with Federation Council Speaker Igor Stroev amid rumors that Stroev would replace Shoigu as the head of Unity. On top of these controversies, Berezovsky, now in open conflict with Putin, recently alleged that funds from the state airline Aeroflot had been used to fund both Unity’s parliamentary campaign and Putin’s run for the presidency earlier this year (see the Monitor, November 15-16).

Ultimately, the Kremlin’s moves against Shoigu are probably part of a more general strategy to remove those individuals who have built their own independent power base from the existing power structure. The Emergency Situations Ministry has been described as a state within a state: According to the FreeLance Bureau website, it has its own armed forces–including “spetsnaz” special forces–navy, Foreign Affairs Ministry and a financial-industrial group, and a total of 70,000 employees. Perhaps more important, it is in essence Shoigu’s private fiefdom, given–first–that he originated the idea for the ministry nearly a decade ago and has headed it since then and–second–that, in the words of one observer, something close to a “cult of personality” has been built around Shoigu within the MChS. He is also a de facto member of the “Family,” the inner circle of former President Boris Yeltsin, given that it was Yeltsin who decreed the ministry into existence back in 1991. This probably does not endear Shoigu to the Kremlin newcomers. In addition, Shoigu is a rather charismatic official, at least by the standards of Russia’s state bureaucracy, and is said to harbor presidential ambitions.

Interestingly, the rumors that Shoigu is in trouble have been followed by renewed rumors that another leading Yeltsin-era figure, Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, is about to lose his job. According to a report published today, Voloshin may be replaced by Georgy Poltavchenko, who is currently Putin’s representative to the Central federal district, one of the seven federal districts established by presidential decree earlier this year (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 28). Poltavchenko himself, it should be noted, called the report “nonsense” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, November 28). In addition, it is possible that the rumors concerning the removal of heavy hitters like Voloshin and Shoigu may simply be leaks by their rivals designed to undermine their positions, or–at least in the case of Voloshin–may even have been leaked by the putative victim himself to enhance his reputation as a political survivor. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Putin is moving to remove Yeltsin loyalists from key positions. This was made clear earlier this month, when he sacked the heads of the country’s two leading arms export companies, Aleksei Ogarev of Rosvooruzhenie and Sergei Chemezov of Promeksport, and merged the two into a new export entity called Rosoboroneksport (see the Monitor, November 7). Rosvooruzhenie was one of the Russian state’s most powerful financial fiefdoms, and Ogarev was said to be a member of Yeltsin’s inner circle. Aleksandr Bychkov was recently removed from as head of the State Customs Committee’s Central Customs Department, in what some observers saw as a step toward removing the custom committee’s chief, Mikhail Vanin. Vanin has also been described as a member of the Yeltsin political “Family,” and the State Customs Committee is another major source of financial flows (Segodnya, November 24).