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Smitten by Belousov

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (May 13−17)

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The appointment of former Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Andrei Belousov as Defence Minister was an unexpected move on the part of Vladimir Putin, particularly so given Putin’ ultra-conservatism in matters of staffing policy. The Russian president is often described as a «master of many-moved games», designed to surprise his opponents and secure Putin victory. Belousov’s arrival at the Defence Ministry could (and does) appear to many to be one such super-efficient multi-moved ploy. Some experts see the arrival of a civilian official as a threat to Ukraine, some regard it as evidence of the Russian economy’s transition to the military footing, others interpret it as a sign of imminent changes in the Russian army that will significantly strengthen it. Both supporters and opponents of Putin’s regime are fascinated by Belousov. They expect the new minister to work miracles, as it is widely believed that Putin’s «system liberals and technocrats» have supposedly saved the Russian economy from the severe effects of Western sanctions and will now do the same for the Russian army.

The magical hopes placed in Belousov, or the fears he inspires, have little to do with his past record. While Elvira Nabiullina, the head of the Central Bank, or Finance Minister Anton Siluanov were really effective in solving the financial and economic problems (caused mainly by Putin’s own policies) even before the full-scale war, it is difficult to determine Belousov’s strengths and merits and the measure of his effectiveness. The position of Deputy Minister of Economic Development is one of influence and status, but the real decisions are made eslewere: in the ministries and the Central Bank. Belousov himself served as head of the Ministry of Economic Development for just over a year and was a longtime presidential aide. Exactly what contribution Belousov has made to the development and strengthening of the Russian economy is difficult to say. The powers of the Defence Minister do not imply any influence on the state’s economic policy, which means that we cannot speak of the Russian economy’s transition to the wartime footing (at least not because of Belousov’s appointment to the Defence Ministry). If this had been the case, the official would have kept his post as Deputy Prime Minister and would have received new instructions and orders from Putin (as would the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank). However, Belousov is no longer in charge of the economy, and nothing is known about the new presidential instructions to Nabiullina and Siluanov.

The new minister cannot be described as a strong or talented businessman. Rather, his forte is economic theory. His skills have little to do with his actual work at the Defence Ministry. The Defence Ministry manages huge budgets, but these are mainly used to build infrastructure, and Marat Khusnullin (Deputy Prime Minister in charge of construction) would have been much more appropriate for the job. Belousov’s appointment will also have little to do with what the Russian army is busy doing at the front. Vladimir Putin expressed this almost directly by refusing to reshuffle the leadership of the General Staff as he seems to be happy with their performance. All in all, it is not very clear what «miracles» we can expect from Belousov’s arrival at the Defence Ministry and what radical changes we can expect on the battlefields.

At the same time, it is wrong to say that the appointment of the former First Deputy Prime Minister as Defence Minister will make no difference whatsoever. Belousov can streamline the Ministry’s financial flows, eliminate inefficient spending and try to fight corruption. Putin was clearly unhappy with the lack of transparency in the army and wants to eliminate it by acting through his trusted appointee. Belousov, who experts call a «statesman» and elites consider a fairly honest and responsible player, is indeed well suited to the role of someone who can carry out purges and fine-tune the inner workings of the Ministry. That in itself is no small thing. However, the presidential envoy will inevitably encounter obstacles as he sets about his plans. Rostec, with Sergei Chemezov at the helm, supplies the Defence Ministry with military equipment, and if Belousov has any complaints about the work of this state corporation, he will provoke a serious conflict. Shoigu’s conflict with Chemezov is likely to have led to Shoigu’s resignation. Representatives of the army are also not enthusiastic about the appointment of a civilian to the top position at the Ministry and may sabotage his instructions. For all these reasons, expectations of success and miracles from Andrei Belousov seem ungrounded.

Kirienko’s obedience

The first deputy head of the presidential administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, stayed in the Kremlin and kept his job as a political watchdog despite his desire to get a new post in the government or one of the state corporations. Most likely, Kiriyenko’s obedience will last until the Duma elections in 2026: a change of political management on the eve of an important campaign seems an illogical and damaging step for the power system (although Putin is increasingly making such moves and surprises cannot be ruled out). This means that we will continue to see parades of «new wave managers», beautiful facades of exhibition projects that simulate reality, personnel competitions and youth forums — in short, everything that Putin has come to love so much and that Kirienko’s team has mastered how to produce.

No governors came from Donbass

This week Putin appointed governors of five regions to replace the four heads of territories who have since moved on to head federal ministries and Alexei Dyumin, who has become an aide to the president. Ilya Seredyuk has been appointed acting governor of the Kemerovo region — he previously worked in the team of Kemerovo’s most famous governor, Aman Tuleyev, and stayed on to work for his successor, Sergei Tsivilev (who is married to Putin’s niece). The Tula region is now headed by Dmitry Milyaev, who served as Dyumin’s deputy and began his career under his predecessor, Vladimir Gruzdev. Deputy Prosecutor General Dmitry Demeshin was appointed acting governor of the Khabarovsk Krai. Alexei Smirnov, deputy governor of the Kursk region, was promoted to acting governor. Former Deputy Industry Minister Alexei Besprozvannykh was appointed Governor of Kaliningrad Oblast. All the appointees have studied or are studying at the so-called «School of Governors» founded by Sergei Kiriyenko at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. However, the main criterion for their appointment was their affiliation to certain influential groups or the patronage of former regional leaders. Before Besprozvannykh, the governor of the Kaliningrad region was the same Anton Alikhanov, who came from the Ministry of Industry and Trade (Rostec’s sphere of influence). Tsivilev, Dyumin, and Kursk Governor Roman Starovoit all literally left successors. The silovik at the helm of the Khabarovsk region is likely to suppress supporters of the former regional leader, Sergei Furgal.

It is symptomatic that among the new appointees there are no officials who went to work in Donbass hoping for career advancement, and no officials and politicians who went to the front with the same goals in mind. Despite all the talk of «new cadres» and «new elite», the governor’s corps is still formed according to the same old rules, and the key factors for appointment remain membership of certain clans or patronage of influential people from Putin’s close circle.

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