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The Ukraine crisis, the escalating tension between Russia and the West and Putin's rising popularity dominate the media narratives about Russia in the West. At the same time there are important developments taking place that some Russian commentators suggest may be a prelude to wider changes in how the country is run.

Much discussion in the West has focused on Putin's use of patriotic rhetoric and his soaring popularity ratings. Since the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea, a poll from the reputable Levada Center indicates that he has over 80 per cent support, with two-thirds responding that they think he is leading Russia in the right direction. These are important numbers. But they relate only to one aspect of Russian political life - ongoing efforts to improve administrative authority are equally important, if not more so.

On 12 May Vladimir Putin appointed a number of senior figures from the security services to positions of strategic importance for Russia. Nikolai Rogozhkin and Sergei Melikov were appointed presidential envoys for the Siberian and North Caucasus federal districts respectively, as well as to the Russian Security Council (as non-permanent members). Other notable appointments include Viktor Zolotov as commander-in-chief of interior ministry troops and first deputy interior minister. Putin also established a new Ministry for North Caucasus Affairs, with Lev Kuznetsov as minister. Viktor Tolokonsky, formerly presidential plenipotentiary to the Siberian Federal District, was made acting governor of Krasnoyarsk in place of Kuznetsov. Appointments were also made to important positions in the interior ministry (MVD).

Russian commentators are divided about the importance of the moves. Some argue that this is little more than a rotation of familiar personnel to imitate a real policy change; others have returned to a long-standing rumour that Zolotov's appointment may herald the creation of a national guard. Still others take the changes more seriously. Evgeniy Minchenko, a respected commentator on Russian domestic politics, suggests that the appointments of Melikov and Rogozhkin makes them ‘mega-regulators' on matters of security and corruption, shifting responsibility for social and economic matters to regional governors and government ministries.

A practical step

While it is a rotation in place rather than a ‘reshuffle' introducing new faces, what is clear is that these appointments shed light on the effort to strengthen the vertical of power - and the difficulties in doing so - that has been underway since Putin's re-election. The first is the ongoing search for administrative effectiveness alluded to by Minchenko. Since 2012, ministerial responsibilities have been reorganized and new ministries created. At the same time, as the authorities themselves have admitted, responsibilities have remained blurred with the result that instructions are not carried out effectively. These appointments, according to Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov, serve to standardize and enhance the chain of command in three strategically important regions (the Far East, the North Caucasus and the new region of Crimea) by establishing a clearer triple vertical of governor, presidential representative and deputy prime minister.

The second is the anti-corruption drive, reinvigorated in late 2011. This has had some success, but faces numerous difficulties, illustrated by the appointments of Alexander Savenkov and Dmitry Mironov to senior positions in the MVD. These moves come in the wake of a scandal involving the Main Directorate for Economic Security and Anti-Corruption that led to the firing in February of the head of this department, Denis Sugrobov, followed on 8 May by his arrest together with most of his team on suspicion of exceeding their authority and instigating a ‘sting' against an allegedly corrupt FSB officer. They face possible charges of forming a criminal organization. Sugrobov had taken over a revamped department in 2011 and pursued a series of high-profile cases, including Master Bank, Oboronservis and VAT rebates fraud investigations, but the work has been paralysed as a result of the scandal. The appointments of Savenkov and Mironov appear to be another attempt to reanimate it.

Third, the appointments illustrate the ongoing rotation of regional governors in preparation for the regional elections to be held this autumn. Since May 2012, Putin has reintroduced elections for governors, but increased pressure on them as the people responsible for dealing with the problems of the regions and implementing Putin's instructions. Some governors have resigned in order to run for election in autumn, others have been removed and replaced. In this respect, the activity of the All-Russian National Front, an organization closely related to the Kremlin's domestic politics department, has played an increasingly visible role in monitoring the effectiveness of governors (its criticism has led to the firing of three since March). It also acts as a reservoir for personnel, illustrated by the appointment of Andrei Bocharov to the position of acting governor of Volgograd region, explicitly endorsed by Putin himself to resolve a range of serious economic and administrative problems.

Putin's rising popularity is an important aspect of Russian politics, of course. But the rotation illustrates more clearly the practicalities of how Russian politics work - and the important questions and problems that the leadership faces in running the country.