This week it emerged that one of Russia’s main business dailies, Kommersant had forced two of its journalists, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov to resign their jobs. The decision came on the heels of an article published in April about Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. The article quoted insider sources about the imminent departure of Matvienko, to be replaced, ostensibly, by Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence (SVR). The speaker herself was going to be appointed the head of Russia’s retirement fund, effectively a sinecure job. Matvienko has called these “rumours”. Following the firing of Safronov and Ivanov the entire politics desk of Kommersant resigned their jobs and more than 200 Kommersant employees condemned the decision. Suddenly, a heated discussion erupted over the state of the Russian media.
The Matvienko article indeed seemed like a minor issue, political gossip that is usually (but not always) confined to Telegram channels. First, if the change were indeed to happen, it wouldn’t be strange or surprising. Naryshkin was Speaker of the State Duma in 2011-16, therefore he has ample experience in the field of legislation. His term at the head of the SVR was marred by controversy as his family was exposed of having applied for residency bonds in Hungary’s golden visa program in 2018 – something that might have been leaked by the Federal Security Service, the SVR’s rival. With the FSB’s growing role in corruption investigations and the increasing rivalry between the military intelligence (GU) and the SVR in foreign operations, Naryshkin might simply be looking for a safer job.
Matvienko on the other hand has just turned 70. A carrier diplomat in the 1990s with origins in St. Petersburg she had a fairly decent political career (in the sense of personal achievements). As the head of the Federation Council she oversaw the vote enabling Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea, which earned her a place on the sanction lists of the EU, the US and their allies. This and several accusations of corruption brought up against her (rather than her age) might have prevented her from becoming a serious candidate to succeed Putin, although she was regarded as one of the potential candidates. In April I wrote:
“Matvienko’s retirement would be another interesting example of a senior Russian political leader from the Putin era retiring from politics after the grumbling departure of Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of the Russian Railways in 2015 and the effective retirement of former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov in 2016 (when he was named the president’s special representative on environment and transport). As more and more of these senior leaders chose or are forced to bow out, their fate and their choices will be closely watched by other ageing leaders who, sensing that times may be a-changing, want to cash out while they can, but as long as it turns out to be a safe choice.”
But this is not what ended up happening. While the board chairman of Kommersant, Ivan Streshinsky has denied that either Matvienko or Naryshkin put pressure on the newspaper and Kommersant’s owner, Alisher Usmanov also denied meddling, someone somewhere apparently indicated that the story was “planted” and the two journalists refused to reveal their sources. At the same time, it also emerged that Matvienko had been truly upset about the article, which somehow prevented her planned transition to the Retirement Fund. Various theories started circulating in the public space about Usmanov’s motivation, the links of the case to St. Petersburg politics and the possible role of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in leaking the information.
It is not unlikely that if the article was more than unfounded political gossip, the information did indeed come from the FSB. Security services routinely leak sensitive information to Telegram channels and – some say – even anti-corruption activists. What made this case interesting, possibly, is that Kommersant, through its ownership structure and its role in Russia’s politics as a serious and fairly free newspaper is considered to be part of the system. This would explain the indignation and the overreaction on the part of Matvienko and Kommersant’s board.
The other possible takeaway from the story is that members of the political elite feel freer to settle scores in the public space than before. The Russian government – in a broad sense – does not benefit from the Kommersant scandal, which risks either to eliminate the kind of not entirely free but competent journalism that characterized the paper or to start a wider debate about the freedom of the press. The government certainly doesn’t want any of these. However, as Tatiana Stanovaya, one of the most astute observers of Russian court politics pointed out just weeks ago, the elite increasingly feel that whatever is not explicitly forbidden by the president is allowed, quite differently from what the norm used to be. Putin is still able to act as the ultimate arbiter in major cases or in case he chooses to do so, but as he is increasingly detached from day-to-day politics and as the understanding that this might very well be his last term is gradually becoming accepted, marking your territory or cashing out will become increasingly important, and even unwelcome rumors about an appointment may feel like they are worth a public spat.