Russia’s Vladimir Putin again reshuffles his inner circle
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has reshuffled his inner-circle again, giving the parliament speaker’s job to his chief domestic strategist, a man who oversaw a vote that further strengthened the dominance of the main Kremlin party.
Friday’s move is the latest twist in a wider Kremlin shake-up that has seen many old-time Putin allies lose their positions to younger, lower-profile aides.
Vyacheslav Volodin, whom Putin nominated as the new speaker of the State Duma, oversaw this month’s parliamentary election in which the main party supporting Putin tightened its grip on the lower house. Volodin replaces Sergei Naryshkin, whom Putin on Thursday appointed as the new chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR.
While Volodin has largely stayed in the shadows, he is considered one of Russia’s most influential officials, a puppet master who has directed the parliament’s work and engineered elections. He was also widely seen as a driving force behind a string of draconian laws in response to massive anti-Putin protests in 2011-2012.
The 52-year-old has become known for his statement “there is no Russia without Putin.”
The reshuffling marks a clear step down for the 61-year-old Naryshkin. The SVR is considered far less influential than another KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Service, known under its Russian acronym FSB, which focuses on domestic security issues like fighting terrorism, catching foreign spies and uncovering economic crimes.
Under Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran who served as FSB director in the late 1990s before ascending to the presidency, the agency has become increasingly powerful. Russian media speculated that the FSB is currently pushing to swallow several other agencies, including the SVR and the nation’s top investigative body, the Investigative Committee.
If such a move happens, it would resurrect the old structure of the KGB, which was split into separate agencies after the 1991 Soviet collapse as Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, sought to limit its clout.
Naryshkin reportedly has known the 63-year-old Putin since the late 1970s, when both were students in the KGB academy, but it’s unclear if he wields sufficient influence to fight the FSB’s onslaught and preserve the SVR’s independence.
Many other long-time Putin confidants recently lost their jobs.
Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, anti-narcotics czar Viktor Ivanov and Kremlin security chief Yevgeny Murov, all men in their 60s and all long-time acquaintances of the president, have been dismissed. Andrei Belyaninov, who knew Putin since both were KGB officers in East Germany, lost his position as customs chief after investigators searched his home and founds hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in shoe boxes.
Last month, Putin also fired his long-time chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, whom he first met in the 1970s when they were both young KGB officers.
Many observers see the changes as a reflection of Putin’s increasing weariness with the old guard and his desire to encircle himself with younger aides who fully owe their ascent to him.
“This marks Volodin’s entrance into the federal political scene as a politician, nor just a bureaucrat, with far-reaching ambitions,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant who once had links to the Kremlin, said Friday on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Volodin has no known links to the KGB or to any of its successor agencies. Trained as an engineer, he served as a regional lawmaker in his home Saratov region on the Volga River in southwest Russia before being elected to the federal parliament.
Volodin got the Kremlin job after his predecessor, Vladislav Surkov, was held responsible for failing to prevent massive protests in Moscow against Putin’s rule that were fueled by evidence of vote-rigging in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election. The Kremlin responded with a slew of laws that introduced tough punishment for taking part in unsanctioned protests and new restrictions on non-government organizations.
This month’s parliamentary election on Sept. 18 was generally seen as cleaner than the 2011 vote. Still, reports of alleged violations came from around the country on election day, including charges of ballot-box stuffing and “carousel voting,” in which people are transported to several locations to cast multiple ballots.
Turnout was distinctly lower this time, less than 48 percent nationwide compared with 60 percent in 2011, reflecting broad apathy and dismay with the political process in Russia.
The Sept. 18 vote gave United Russia, the main party supporting Putin, 343 seats in the 450-seat lower house, a gain of more than 100 seats that raises it far above the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution on its own.
Three other parties that had largely complied with the Kremlin’s wishes saw their presence shrink: The Communists won 42 seats in the new Duma, a sharp drop from 92, the nationalist Liberal Democrats got 39 and the socialist Just Russia 23 seats.
While the three parties posture as the opposition, their fealty to the Kremlin was at full display Friday when Putin met with parliament leaders. They all enthusiastically supported Volodin’s candidacy and were openly lobbying Putin to let them to keep the committees they led in the old parliament.
The Duma will vote to appoint Volodin the speaker when it meets next month.
While the speaker’s job is nominally considered the fourth most senior position in the Russian officialdom — following the posts of the president, the prime minister and the upper house speaker — its holders have wielded little influence compared to Kremlin and Cabinet officials.
In his previous position, Volodin was considered far more influential than Naryshkin. Some pundits saw the speaker’s job as a demotion for him, while others speculated he would use it to further raise his clout.
“The question now is if the job cuts Volodin down to size or he adds political weight to the speaker’s job,” wrote Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think-tank.
Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician who served in the old Duma, argued that the new job would give Volodin higher visibility and could be a sign that he’s being groomed to succeed Putin sometime down the road.
“Volodin is an ideal choice for the Kremlin,” Gudkov said.