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An inconvenient case of Shoigu’s Deputy

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (22−26 April)

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The arrest of Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov can be described as the most important political event not only of last week, but of recent months as well. Sergei Shoigu’s influential opponents were able to conduct a blitzkrieg and unexpectedly stub the defence minister’s clan in the back. Ivanov is said to be a close associate of Shoigu’s, who controls the ministry’s infrastructure projects and manages its property. The main enemies of Sergei Shoigu and his group are believed to be the clan of Viktor Zolotov, the head of Rosgvardiya, who wants to extend his sphere of influence and control to the army. For a long time, Shoigu’s enemies have been trying to publicly undermine his reputation, using Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the «Wagner» PMC, as their main battering ram. Prigozhin accused Shoigu and his subordinates of unprofessionalism, and claimed that the regular armed forces under Shoigu’s command were inefficient. For several months, Prigozhin, a number of military reporters and TV channels attacked Shoigu, and at one point it seemed that the minister would soon resign, especially as the army was failing to make headway on the battlefield. But despite all the challenges, the head of the Defence Ministry managed to fend off the attacks, and Prigozhin’s mutiny last year actually worked to strengthen Shoigu’s position. In recent months, the Russian army has managed to take the initiative on the battlefield, and the president is clearly pleased. Shoigu had a good chance of keeping his ministerial post after Putin’s inauguration (at least until the end of the war), and his group had a good chance of adding to its ranks and expanding its influence once the government is reshuffled. Against this background, those plotting against the minister and his clan found a breach in his defence and chose a tried and tested method: they launched an anti-corruption case against an important representative of a rival group. Putin will not be able to ignore this, so some losses for the Shoigu clan are inevitable. In any case, he can certainly forget about his expansion plans.

However, the blitzkrieg undertaken by Shoigu’s opponents has left the system at a loss as to how to respond to these developments. Arrests of officials, even at lower levels of the power vertical, typically take a long time to be approved and coordinated; the top brass knows how and when to comment on them. In addition, the authorities try to reap PR benefits from such arrests. Television channels and other the media loyal to the authorities tend to portray the officials that have messed up with bundles of money, luxury goods, expensive cars and mansions. So far we’ve seen nothing of the sort pertaining to Timur Ivanov’s arrest, at least not yet. Photos of the now former deputy minister’s mansion have only appeared on a few Telegram channels, although it’s clear that the propagandists would have ample evidence to show. Ivanov loved luxury and was not shy about his expensive tastes. TV news reports mention the deputy minister’s case only briefly or try to avoid it altogether. In other words, they simply did not have time to prepare a PR campaign to explain Ivanov’s arrest because there was no order to do so. It’s quite likely that there won’t be one: a wartime trial of the deputy defence minister will tarnish the image of the authorities in general. Even pro-war Russians may start asking questions: what is the war for? Is it waged to protect the mansions and corruption schemes of top officials? If the Russian army were not doing well at the front, the arrest of the deputy defence minister might explain that. But so far the Russian armed forces are doing well, especially in the narrative spun by propaganda.

The vertical cannot yet digest the case of Timur Ivanov: the propaganda is silent, Shoigu is silent and Putin, too, is silent. The internal squabbles of influential groups overshadow the interests of the system as a whole, but since the system is made up of these groups, it cannot develop a unified and collective response to such excesses. The last weeks before the window of opportunities for the hopeful cadres opens during the reappointment of the government will obviously be hot. Members of the power vertical will propose and try to realise their projects for the future (and Ivanov’s arrest is also a project of sorts). These projects are either for the personal benefit of individual players, or are designed to attract the attention of the President in order for their authors to retain their position or increase their influence. These proposals may have a negative public impact, but groups and influential individuals are currently busy defending their own interests, not those of the regime as a whole.

Valentina Matvienko’s projects

The idea of the speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, to consolidate Russia’s regions can be seen as one of such project proposals. Matvienko has long proposed merging the subjects of the federation in order to simplify administration. The oil-rich Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug would be the first to be merged. These subjects have the status of independent regions on the one hand, and are part of neighbouring regions on the other: the Nenets Autonomous Okrug will be merged with Arkhangelsk Oblast’, the Yamalo-Nenets and the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrugs — with Tyumen Oblast’. Such territories are often referred to as nesting «matryoshka dolls». The authorities of the «parent» oblasts [regions] have the ability to influence the budgetary process of the okrugs [districts], to deprive them of some of their powers. Relatively recently the governors of the oblasts, have been proposing candidates for district heads to the president. In reality, however, budgetary relations are governed by special agreements. The okrugs share part of their oil revenues with the oblasts in return for almost complete independence and autonomy in budget allocation.

The elites and residents of these regions have long fought the centre’s attempts to strip them of their independence ­- the Kremlin has been making such attempts since the mid-2000s. The most confrontational and acute moment in this history occurred in 2020. During the election campaign, Alexander Tsybulsky, the acting governor of the Arkhangelsk region, and his PR team decided that the region’s population would like the idea of merging with its oil-rich neighbour. As it turned out, the people of the region did not like the idea very much, and there were mass protests in the district, despite the COVID-time restrictions. The authorities had to back down quickly, and Andrei Turchak, the general secretary of the «United Russia» party, went out into the streets to calm the rioting population and the elites of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Despite these efforts, residents and influential groups were left with a bitter aftertaste: as a result, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug was the only region in Russia to vote against the 2020 constitutional amendments.

Matviyenko’s initiative will once again make the elites nervous and worried, both in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and in the Tyumen Oblast’. The Chairwoman of the Federation Council is clearly busy promoting herself to gain more visibility and political capital by proposing a project that she could lead, either in her current position or in a new one. Putin may like the proposal, as he believes that Russians are more united than ever, and against this background the federal centre can thus realise any dreams that were previously considered difficult to achieve. Matviyenko will do her job, while cracks and leaks will continue to appear in the system in the form of popular and local elite discontent.

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