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Iron Commissar: the New Image of Andrei Belousov

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (June 17−21)

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The new Defense Minister Andrey Belousov has launched an active PR campaign to promote himself in this new position. The official visited Primorsky Krai, where he spoke in front of the cameras, giving instructions for the construction of a new military sanatorium and even threatened contractors building a military post: «Do not you dare not to complete the construction on time! You will be prosecuted.» Since the information about the minister’s trip appeared not only on Telegram channels, but also on TV news programs, we can assume that this is not a personal initiative of the head of the Defense Ministry, but a campaign coordinated at the highest level. Shortly before this, Belousov met with the leadership of the Ministry of Health, and this meeting, too, was public and extensively covered by the media, allowing Belousov to openly articulate his demands to the Ministry.

The Kremlin is clearly keen on showing Russians the «new face» of the Defense Ministry. Andrey Belousov is portrayed as a «tough administrator» who knows and understands how to spend money, when to build facilities and how to punish negligent subordinates. The election campaigns of the gubernatorial candidates appointed by the federal center are designed in much the same way: this technology has already been tried and tested in various ways by the Kremlin’s media and PR consultants. Interestingly enough, the focus here is on the «economic and civil» component of the Ministry’s work. Belousov appears before his subordinates and all citizens clad not in military or pseudo-military uniform, which has quickly become fashionable even among civilian officials, but in a well-fitting jacket, a crisp clean white shirt and a tie. The Russians, thus, see a civilian manager, an iron-fisted commissar who will take a firm hand in the economic affairs of the Ministry entrusted to him. Andrey Belousov’s predecessor, Sergei Shoigu, had a different image. He wore a uniform, took part in events directly related to the troops and emphasized patriotism: he built theme parks, unveiled the Temple of the Armed Forces, organized spectacular events, such as tank biathlon tournaments and forums and exhibitions of army equipment. Shoigu did pretend to be a tough administrator.

So far, it seems that the country’s top leadership wants to quell the discontent of the military, which criticized the former Defense Minister and his entourage, and convince the Russian public that the new man in the job is very effective and is busy solving the management and economic problems within his agency. On the other hand, the Kremlin is wary of a new militarized public figure appearing on the political scene who might quickly gain popularity: it well remembers the sharp rise in ratings of the late founder of the «Wagner» group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. That is why Andrey Belousov is turning into an Iron Сommissar in civilian clothes, an Iron Fist ready to tackle the army’s everyday problems, but clearly not in command of it and not even wearing a military uniform. It is quite possible that some of the problems will be solved, but the problems with Belousov’s new image are also obvious. The military has already criticized the appointment of a yet another civilian as Defense Minister, and Commissar Belousov’s white shirt and meticulously tailored suit can only boost this dissatisfaction and alienate him further from the army.

«It’s raining mayors!» — a surrogate of politics

Since the beginning of 2024, 13 heads of large municipalities in Russia have left their posts. These officials had different reasons for leaving. For example, Ruslan Kukharuk, the former mayor of Tyumen, was promoted and became governor of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District. The resignation of Oleg Polumordvinov, the mayor of Astrakhan, who was far from popular in his town, was a PR stunt in the campaign for the re-election of Igor Babushkin, the head of the region. It is likely that some municipal officials were forced to resign before criminal cases were brought against them. Many see the departure of mayors as a political event that seriously affects political life and sentiment in the regions. At least, this was the case until a few years ago. After the resignation of the incumbent mayor, the inevitable political struggle of local influential groups during the election campaign would begin. Even if the direct election of the head of the municipality was abolished, conflicts could arise over the appointment of the head of the municipality — his or her candidacy was decided upon by the deputies of the local council, which included representatives of various clans vying for power. Now, however, the situation is very different.

Direct elections of mayors are still practiced in a handful of Russian cities, typically those where there is no political competition left anymore. Deputies appoint heads of administration only after they have passed through the filter of a competitive commission that includes both representatives of the municipality and the governor. The mayors of large cities are mostly regional government officials, and their appointment becomes a routine: the residents do not participate in it, and the deputies have virtually no opportunity to reject a candidate pushed into the mayor’s office by the governor of the region. In fact, the heads of regional capitals and cities that are large by the standards of a single region have long since become deputy governors for a particular locality. A simple example illustrates the political importance of the mayor’s job. At a recent meeting with participants in the «Time of Heroes» program, Vladimir Putin failed to remember the face or surname of the former mayor of Krasnodar, Yevgeny Pervyshov, who is now at the forefront of the so-called «deputy battalion» (Pervyshov is a «United Russia» member of the State Duma). And Krasnodar is considered to be one of the largest and fastest growing cities in Russia.

The memory of the direct elections of yesteryear and the great publicity surrounding the office of mayor generate discussion and fuss about their abolition: a surrogate or subimitation of politics that politically active Russians, or at least politically interested citizens, are hungry for. In reality, though, these reshuffles are better understood as reshuffles in regional administrations, where deputy governors change very frequently. With few exceptions, these personnel decisions have long ceased to be meaningful or important events even in regional politics, let alone at the federal level. It is likely that the departure of mayors dependent on the governor and their replacement will also sooner or later cease to be a big deal: people will get used to the cycle of the governor’s appointees and not take it seriously.

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