Continuity is a defining feature of the Russian political and bureaucratic landscape. Many of the prominent politicians and officials have held senior positions since the mid-to-late 1990s with real reshuffles being comparatively rare, and Vladimir Putin writing publicly of his dislike of firing people.
But recently this apparent continuity has looked increasingly paradoxical, with considerable turnover in personnel, even at senior levels. In late June for instance, senior officers in the Baltic fleet were fired, and in July there were dismissals and appointments of regional personnel.
And now Putin has removed Sergei Ivanov, a member of his core St Petersburg team, from the position of Chief of the Presidential Administration. The exact reasons for his move to environment and transport remain opaque, but officially it appears to be part of a plan: he stated that he and Putin had a long-standing agreement that he should serve four years in the position, and that the move has been in the offing for some months.
Further changes in the system?
Such moves have generated much discussion about “purges” and “shake-ups”, and speculation about the possibility for impending further major changes in the system.
In fact, the Russian leadership team has recently overseen regular group “rotations” of personnel at the regional level during the last few years, including governors and presidential envoys. The latest moves fit this trend, echoing similar rotations in spring and autumn 2014 and coming in the wake of a reorganization of the internal law enforcement and security services in April this year.
Two important appointments link the moves from 2014 with those of this year. In autumn 2014, Viktor Zolotov, long-serving head of the presidential body guard, was appointed to the position of first deputy minister of the interior and commander of the interior troops; and then in April this year, he was appointed to command the newly established National Guard.
The other is the promotion of Sergei Melikov. Formerly a commander of the special operations force division of the interior ministry, he was appointed presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District in spring 2014. In July, he was appointed first deputy commander of the National Guard. Both appear to be part of a coherent plan of appointing personnel to gain preparatory experience prior to their new positions.
At the same time, there has been a turnover of senior individuals. Yevgeniy Murov, long-serving head of the Federal Protection Service, recently retired and Igor Sergun, the head of military intelligence, died in January. And Putin has fired Evgeny Dod, chairman of the board of managers of Rushydro, (he has been subsequently arrested on charges of fraud), and Vladimir Dmitriev, head of VEB.
Among Putin’s long-term allies, Vladimir Yakunin lost his position as head of Russian Railways in autumn 2015, Viktor Ivanov retired this spring, and Andrei Belyaninov, head of the Federal Customs Service since 2006, resigned amid a scandal this summer. Meanwhile, Sergei Ivanov’s move to presidential envoy for ecology and transport is to date the most high-profile of all these moves.
Attempts at rejuvenation
Again, rather than “purges” or “major shake-ups”, these moves appear to be a blend of natural progression with attempts to rejuvenate the system while making it more efficient. Three related points stand out
First, the leadership is exerting considerable pressure on the system to make it function more effectively at a time of international tension and economic stagnation. Putin repeatedly emphasizes that limited resources need to be more efficiently used, and plans must be implemented. Those unable to deliver results – even if they are close to the president – are being relieved of their jobs.
The firings of Dod, Dmitriev and in the Baltic fleet appear to fit this category, as do, perhaps, Yakunin and Belyaninov. And some Russian sources suggest that since the death of his son in 2014, Ivanov has not performed satisfactorily.
Second, the replacements illustrate the strong underling sense of evolving continuity, as many of the new appointees were promoted from first deputy or deputy, or from closely related positions.
Vaino, although not one of the leadership’s core St Petersburg group, has worked in the president’s office since 2002, and held senior positions close to Putin for nearly a decade, including in the presidential administration since 2012, where he was also Ivanov’s deputy (Ivanov himself proposed him for promotion). And Ivanov himself, it is worth noting, has not retired, and retains a permanent position on the Russian Security Council.
Third, drawing these points together, there is a natural evolution taking place in the system as individuals reach retirement age: Murov was 68, Yakunin 67, and Viktor Ivanov 65.
There will inevitably be more retirements among the senior group, and the appointment of Vaino, 44, illustrates that younger individuals in their 40s (and even 30s) are already advancing in the system. Putin has stated that “fresh blood” should be brought into the system through organisations such as the Popular Front and party primaries.
Therefore, more retirements and firings should be expected – even of senior figures – as the leadership seeks to rejuvenate the system and make it function more effectively. Ambitious and competent individuals will be positioning themselves for advancement as the political landscape evolves over the next five years.
Dr Andrew Monaghan is senior research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is also a visiting fellow at the Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford.