(This note first appeared on 14 August 2016 on the Atlantic Sentinel)
Sergei Ivanov’s dismissal as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff last week is the most important change in the upper echelon of Russia’s political elite since Putin returned to the presidency four years ago. Ivanov was the longest-serving head of the Presidential Administration in post-Soviet Russia. He has now been appointed to the largely powerless position of presidential representative for ecology and transportation.
This is certainly a demotion. But that does not mean this was an abrupt change or a purge.
Two weeks ago, Putin’s replacement of four governors and several other high-ranking cadres was dubbed an empowerment of people with a background in the security services, the so-called siloviki.
Now Ivanov, the highest-ranking silovik, has been dismissed and replaced by a diplomat.
This shows that talk about a clear shift should be treated with caution. It may just be that Putin’s personnel policy has changed and old categories — siloviki versus technocrats versus liberals, as well as Putin’s “Politburo” — simply do not work any more as they used to.
Ivanov’s allies and the siloviki have been reined in by Putin in the past few months. Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister turned economic advisor who was rumored to be elevated to the position of “alternative prime minister” in charge of working out an economic reform plan with the help of Ivanov and German Gref, the head of Sberbank, quickly found out that certain aspects of the economy were off limits as regards these reforms.
Igor Sechin, the head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, who used to be known as the most powerful of the siloviki, was told Rosneft could not participate in the sale of Bashneft, a lucrative oil firm to be privatized this year and which Rosneft had been eying.
However, Ivanov had ample personal reasons for leaving his position too (i.e., the death of his son in 2014) and the official explanation remains that he had requested Putin not to keep him there years ago.
There is another circumstance to suggest that this dismissal was well coordinated: with Ivanov’s deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin, who is in charge of overseeing matters related to Russia’s party system, now on the campaign trail, Ivanov’s successor, Anton Vaino, a younger Putin confidant, will temporarily take over his duties too. I find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence.
Putin’s new friends
It might be that instead of a causal link, the two phenomena outlined here have a common cause. The “collective Putin,” or a “Politburo” of a small group of powerful officials and oligarchs — mostly Putin’s old friends — is being replaced by younger or politically less powerful officials: Putin’s new friends.
These people may come from the security services, for instance the Federal Protective Service, like Viktor Zolotov, or Putin’s immediate diplomatic entourage, like Anton Vaino.
The timing seems appropriate: Putin faces a presidential election in less than two years, he is clearly tired of some representatives of the “old” elite who have been squandering Russia’s shrinking resources and his popular legitimacy is still strong enough to prevent his authority being seriously questioned.