Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has pursued a very conservative personnel policy, relying upon a narrow circle of old friends from St. Petersburg and the KGB. Yet all of a sudden he has begun dismissing one senior KGB associate after another, while appointing his bodyguards and faceless younger bureaucrats to senior posts. A pattern has arisen. As Russian journalist in Ukrainian exile Yevgeny Kiselev argues, Putin is pursuing a great purge.
In recent years, Putin’s power has been based on three concentric circles. At the center, a group of his contemporary KGB generals sit in the Kremlin and at the top of the security agencies. A second group of his contemporaries from St. Petersburg and the KGB is in charge of the big state corporations. A third group of cronies from St. Petersburg make fortunes in the private sector from privileged state procurements. These Putin protégés were seen as nearly untouchable, with only the odd, accidental departure.
The wave of recent departures started with the retirement of Vladimir Yakunin, CEO of the Russian Railways, last August, even though he belonged to Putin’s dacha cooperative in St. Petersburg. Ten days later the head of the State hydropower company was sacked and later sentenced to ten years in prison for corruption. Last February, the CEO of the big state bank Vnesheconombank, Vladimir Dmitriev, was retired. Yakunin and Dmitriev were widely considered KGB generals.
In each case, there were allegations about gross mismanagement and corruption, but that was hardly the cause of their ouster, because Putin is showering ever more state money on other, rather more corrupt cronies, including the major state contractors Arkady Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk, and Nikolay Shamalov. Russia’s ruling elite is so pervasively corrupt that larceny cannot be a reason for dismissal, while it is a standard excuse
In April, Putin carried out the biggest reorganization of the security agencies since he seized control over them in April 2001. He created a National Guard of 170,000 troops under the command of his long-time chief bodyguard General Viktor Zolotov, taking the elite troops from the weakened Ministry of Interior.
The creation of the National Guard tilted the balance among these services. A clear divide has arisen between the old KGB, the FSB, and the SVR (the foreign intelligence agency) on the one side, and the small elitist presidential guard (FSO) and the new National Guard on the other. Putin has supported the security services and encouraged their rivalries, as Mark Galeotti has analyzed, but has he gone too far?
Putin also retired several of his old St. Petersburg KGB associates, including the long-time commander of the FSO Yevgeny Murov and Viktor Ivanov, the chief of the Russian drug enforcement agency. Ivanov’s generals were also retired. Earlier this year, Putin dropped former Minister of Interior Boris Gryzlov from the important Security Council. In August, Putin took a big step by sacking his Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, who has been seen as Putin’s real deputy.
In July, Putin appointed several regional representatives and governors. Two new governors are his former bodyguards from the FSO, while most of the new appointees were drawn from the FSB. The security services are on the rise, but Putin’s old friends are on the decline.
In his analysis, Kiselev draws a parallel with Stalin’s great purge in 1937, when he ousted all who had known him when he was young and all old Bolsheviks who could look down on him. In the same fashion, Kiselev suggests, Putin is now sacking all who knew him as a young, unsuccessful spy in the KGB and a mediocre official in St. Petersburg. That would explain why so many purported KGB generals have been sacked. It also explains why Putin is promoting faceless junior officials, who owe everything to him and will obey unquestioningly. Yet Kiselev does not predict a new great terror.
He concludes that we should expect this purge to continue. Many old associates are still in office. Putin’s long-time favorite Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft and long-time assistant to Putin from the St. Petersburg KGB, appears to have fallen on hard times. But needless to say, this purge has nothing to do with reforms. On the contrary, it is all about concentrating power in Putin’s hands so that he can continue to rule without reforms.
Until this past July, Putin proceeded slowly and deliberately with his personnel changes, but now they have accelerated. If he does not move fast enough, he may lose out himself. As I have argued, the Security Council poses a threat to him; it is today’s Politburo. When Putin sacked Ivanov as Chief of Staff, he failed to depose him from the Security Council or to include his current favorite Zolotov. Indeed, Putin appears to have a majority of generals against him on the Security Council. Either he will sack them, or they may oust him.
Putin’s great purge has driven Moscow to crunch time.