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Putin did not surrender Shoigu

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (May 6−12)

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On Sunday evening, Vladimir Putin proposed that the Federation Council approve former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov as Minister of Defense. Sergei Shoigu, who worked as the head of the defense department for just over ten years, moved to a new job right during the Russian army’s attack on the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. He received the prestigious post of Secretary of Security Council, although influential opponents of Shoigu (the head of Rostec Sergei Chemezov and the head of the Russian Guard Viktor Zolotov) were able to organize a successful attack on him shortly before the personnel changes. Zolotov had long sought the minister’s resignation; people close to him (for example, the late Yevgeny Prigozhin) had a public spat with the minister, but even in difficult times for the Russian army at the front, Putin preferred to keep Shoigu in his post. Not long ago, Chemezov joined the ranks of Shoigu’s opponents, about whose work Sergei Shoigu began to complain to the Russian leadership, and the head of Rostec had to publicly justify himself after such complaints. Heavy artillery was used — Shoigu’s deputy and a person close to him, Timur Ivanov, were arrested on charges of corruption. Shoigu left, but Zolotov and Chemezov were unlikely to achieve their goals. The first wanted to appoint his own person to the defense department (for example, Putin’s former security guard and the governor of the Tula region, Alexei Dyumin), and the second would probably also have found a suitable character in the personnel bins.

But the president did not allow either Zolotov or Chemezov to gain additional positions in the Ministry of Defense. He moved Shoigu horizontally, and even raised him a little. The Minister of Defense became a purely civilian economist, Belousov, whose main resource is his personal connection with the president. In addition, the former deputy prime minister is equidistant from influential groups. We can say that Andrei Belousov will be overseeing the army as Putin’s personal envoy. It is symptomatic that the president did not entrust the ministry not only to representatives of one of the clans of his entourage, but also to the military itself. Apparently, Putin would very much not like the strengthening of the army elites and seems to see them as a threat. To stop it, he appoints an external manager to the army, a person completely alien to the military. It is unlikely that, in the midst of an offensive, this will be able to motivate the army, which, although it expected the president to resign the «stranger» Shoigu, did not at all expect that it would be led by an even stranger to the troops, Belousov.

Sergei Shoigu, despite the attacks, remains a person close to Putin, whom the Russian president does not give up under any circumstances and even demonstratively promotes. It is likely that the head of Russia feels that forceful methods of resolving conflicts in the elites may ultimately backfire on him and is trying to show their failure.

Mishustin is Back

Vladimir Putin predictably submitted Mikhail Mishustin to the State Duma for approval as a candidate for prime minister. Mishustin had served as prime minister for four years, had not caused any major trouble or conflicts and had not fallen out of favour with the president, although he had refrained for a long time from directly and publicly expressing his support for the war. In this sense, his reappointment as prime minister was logical and even inevitable. However, elite groups that might have nothing against the head of government personally still hoped to see a new face appointed as prime minister. At the end of last year, various assumptions about who would lead the government after the elections circulated on various Telegram channels, which have become the main source of rumours (and, thus, also a thermometer of the mood of influential players). Some expected Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin to become prime minister. Others thought that Dmitry Medvedev would return to the post. Still others believed that either Dmitry Patrushev, agriculture minister and son of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, or Sergei Tsivilev, husband of Putin’s niece and governor of the Kemerovo region, were the most likely candidates for the job.

Rumours of Mishustin’s replacement continued to circulate even in the final days before his reappointment. The appearance of Sobyanin, Tsivilev or Patrushev in the prime minister’s chair would have meant new scenarios for the entire system. In the first case, the style of governance would have changed: the mayor of Moscow is more oriented towards successful semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes in Asia. The appointment of Tsivilev or Patrushev would signal the system’s transition to a hereditary form of government. This is unlikely to meet the expectations of most elite groups, but the very expectation of new developments and the willingness to discuss some alternative scenarios shows that influential players are tired of the current state of affairs and are waiting for change.

Putin once again demonstrated how deeply conservative he is, by not firing the prime minister or most of the key ministers. And here the president’s tactical instincts are not failing him: the government’s technocrats are doing a good job of countering sanctions, so replacing them with obscure «hereditary princes» like Tsivilev and Patrushev is simply harmful. Sobyanin’s arrival to the government would lead to an inevitable readjustment, which could critically affect the country’s manageability in a time of war. From a strategic point of view, however, this conservatism will inevitably lead to a multiplication of intra-elite conflicts, that are bound to become more or more fierce. The prime minister and his subordinates will not be very comfortable working under such conditions.

Apocalypse of Patriarch Kirill

Putin’s inauguration has finally turned into a ceremonial event where members of Russia’s power vertical can once again pledge their loyalty to the country’s leader, and observers well-versed in Russian politics can hazard a guess as to which officials have fallen out of favour and which are still in Putin’s good graces. Patriarch Kirill had clearly set his sights on winning this loyalty contest, as he wanted Putin to rule the country until the end of the 21st century. But Kirill’s attempt was not very successful. Even the media loyal to the authorities presented the Patriarch’s remarks in an ironic way, and his statement itself disappeared from the Moscow Patriarchate’s website. The primate of the Russian Orthodox Church touched on a subject that makes Putin and his system as a whole very uneasy: the end of presidential powers (albeit in connection with Putin’s death) and the end of the regime as such.

The subject of death is hardly pleasant for the ageing president, and his natural demise is fraught with the most unpleasant consequences for his entourage. The Patriarch, who wanted to say one thing (to wish Putin a long life and long reign), said something quite different. He was probably the first representative of the system to talk about its end. Kirill tried to talk about good things, but brought up the subject of an apocalypse for the system that no one wants to think about. The subject of Putin’s death is taboo, because talking about it automatically leads to thinking about what will happen next and what should be done now to stay afloat in this situation.

Running in place

As he did six years ago, after his inauguration Putin signed a so-called «May decree» that contained very ambitious promises and plans. In a way, this document can be seen as Putin’s election programme, published after the fact (Putin did not publish any programmes before the election, either in this campaign or in the previous one). The president promises that in a few years Russia will become the world’s fourth-largest economy (albeit measured by a tricky indicator — purchasing power parity), poverty will decrease and the minimum wage will double. In addition, by 2030, every Russian citizen should own at least 33 square metres of living space. The goals outlined in the document will most likely not be achieved, or at least will be achived on paper. This is exactly what happened with the May Decree six years ago. For instance, it provided for an immediate increase in public sector wages. It quickly became clear that there was no money in the budget for such an increase, nor was it expected to materialize. As a result, local authorities began to report that they had fulfilled Putin’s order by providing data on payments to people who were working at multiple rates, i.e. were seriously overworked. Even now, the government and regional authorities are able to produce generally good figures, and in the case of the minimum wage, the targets can even be met. It is true that in five years the real weight of the ruble may be seriously reduced, but the promise will be kept.

Russia’s top leadership and its political managers are trying their best to restyle the image of the Kremlin and Putin, their promises, and to come up with a new «image of the future.» The power vertical needs to present an attractive picture for the citizens, because so far nothing good is on the horizon. Public anxiety remains high. Russians are worried about rising prices and fear a new wave of mobilisation. But so far, the authorities have only managed to create an imaginary present: just think of the Exhibition Forum «Rossiya» that employed augmented virtual reality. Political managers and bureaucratic technocrats can’t come up with anything new for the ageing president, who is fascinated by war and geopolitics. They resort to old practices such as «May decrees» and «national projects» that are already several years (or even decades) old. The system begins to run in place, pretending that the badly forgotten old is something new.

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