Last week, Vladimir Putin made some major political moves, marking the biggest Russian government staff reshuffle in recent years. Four regional heads lost their posts, and five Presidential Envoys to Federal Districts, as well as the head of the Federal Customs Service, were appointed by Russia’s President in one day. Three appointees are old KGB hands.
Our regular readers might be surprised to know that the governor of Kirov Oblast, Nikita Belykh, caught red-handed accepting a massive bribe and very publicly arrested, was fired only now, almost a month later. The executive order cites the loss of the President’s trust as a reason for his dismissal. Belykh was replaced by the head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Cartography, Igor Vasiliev. As RBC notes, Vasiliev has bragged that he worked at the same KGB department as Vladimir Putin.
The governor of Yaroslavl Oblast—the region perhaps familiar to Americans from a recent Wall Street Journal story about how Senator Bernie Sanders spent his honeymoon there in 1988—was fired as well. His position was given to the former KGB and FSB officer, deputy Interior Minister, and Lieutenant General of the Police Dmirty Mironov. In 2014 he was appointed the head of the Economic Security and Anticorruption Department of the Interior Ministry, replacing the then recently-arrested General Denis Sugrobov.
Another KGBist—and a man with links to Viktor Zolotov—was appointed to Kaliningrad Oblast. Evgeny Zinichev had been Putin’s bodyguard before getting sent into politics. In a number of photos of Vladimir Putin’s official visits taken in the last five years, Zinichev is described as either an FSB or an FSO (Federal Protective Service) officer. In some of the photos, Zinichev is standing next to General Zolotov. Zinichev’s official biography, published on the Kaliningrad Oblast government website, says that from 1987 to 2015, he served in different capacities on various federal security bodies. In 2015, Zinichev headed Kaliningrad Oblast branch of the FSB. Zinichev won’t be the first FSO officer to head up a region though. In February, Putin put Alexey Dumin, also of FSO pedigree, in charge of Tula Oblast.
A third KGB veteran was appointed to lead the Federal Customs Service, an agency until very recently headed by Andrey Belianinov. (Belianinov, readers will recall, was fired after the FSB raided his home two weeks ago, and found almost $1 million in cash, stashed away in shoe boxes. As we previously wrote, the attack on Belianinov was initiated by the Interior Security Department (USB) of the FSB, the home of the 6th Service.) The new head of the Customs Service is one Vladimir Bulavin, a long-serving officer in various KGB and FSB organizations. He was Deputy Chief of the FSB when Nikolay Patrushev, who is now in Putin’s closest circle, was its head. When Patrushev was replaced by Alexander Bortnikov and went to head the National Security Council, Bulavin became Deputy Chief Secretary of the Council.
Other changes didn’t involve appointments of KGBists, and were mostly rotations rather then real firings. For instance, the Presidential Envoy to the Crimea Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev, was moved to the North Caucasus Federal District. And the Governor of Sevastopol, Sergey Menyailo, was made the Siberia Federal District Presidential Envoy. An interesting detail: the former Siberia Envoy, Nikolay Rogozhkin, was fired and not reassigned anywhere. Before Siberia he had headed the Internal Troops of the Interior Ministry for ten years, the military structure which became the core of the newly-formed National Guard, headed by Viktor Zolotov.
Apart from Rogozhkin and Belykh, the only other person who was properly fired was the Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov. Zurabov might be replaced by another silovik, former KGB and FSB officer Mikhail Babich, RBC reports, citing sources inside the Kremlin.
What does this staff rotation tell us about Russia? Nothing all that new, actually. Putin has been promoting his personal staff in politics and business for quite some time already. For example, Arkady Rotenberg, the billionaire beneficiary of scores of state contracts, has been Putin’s judo sparring partner for years. And the owner of the notorious internet troll factory in Olgino—the man ultimately responsible for the inane rantings cluttering the comments of most Western media websites—Evgeny Prigozhin, is none other than Putin’s personal chef. As time goes on, this pattern continues: more and more of Putin’s support staff and friends get a foothold in Russia’s political life. And since Russia happened to get a KGB President, Putin’s friends and associates tend to be KGBists.
Moreover, the Crimea annexation and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine boosted the power and cachet of the siloviki in Russia. The National Security Council decides the politics in and outside of Russia, and the other branches of government are subjected to these decisions. The federal budget is written so that it satisfies Russia’s military and foreign policy priorities. So it’s been just a matter of time until Putin would start to appoint siloviki to public administration positions en masse. One can take a man out of the KGB, but one can never take the KGB out of the man.