Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to appoint the “siloviki” — officials from the law enforcement, security, and military structures to positions of influence within the country, and that’s leading to a power struggle at the very top.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, May 9, 2014. Pictured left-right: FSB Chief Alexander Bortnikov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: AP

Over his 16 years in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly relied on his own people, the so-called “Petersburg family,” which includes his former KGB colleagues as well as influential individuals from the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg.

While former president Boris Yeltsin was regarded as one who enabled Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to amass unsurpassed power, Putin has gained a reputation as the promoter of the “siloviki,” who have taken over at least a quarter of the state apparatus. Yet, it is not just the case that these “siloviki” – members of the law enforcement, security and military “power structures” - are gaining power at the expense of leaders within the political elite. There is something deeper going on here.

The personnel reshuffles and resounding criminal charges that occurred at the end of July could be evidence that wars among the different power structures are going on. Some are strengthening their positions while others are losing influence, with their status changing with respect to their relationship with Putin.

New governors

Massive personnel reshuffles have become a defining feature of the Putin administration. Even the state-run media outlets could not avoid noting that two of the new governors are veterans from the law enforcement agencies. Thus, the post of the head of Kaliningrad region was taken over by the chief of the regional Federal Security Service (FSB), Evgeny Zinichev, and that of Yaroslavl region by a veteran from the Federal Protective Service (FSO), Dmitry Mironov.

According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, those were decisions taken by the head of state personally, who thus showed his trust in representatives of the “power” structures.

“In the opinion of the head of state, it is these people who have the right potential to continue the development of the regions,” said Peskov. “Firstly, they have gained experience in those departments of the respective structures that relate to business and economy and thus have obtained a solid enough background in terms of management.”

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In fact, until the elections, the newly appointed governors will only have a status of acting governor. However, based on past experience, such appointees stay for a long time in office.

Of course, “siloviki” being appointed to positions of power is not anything new. Thus, in February of this year, the seat of the governor of Tula region fell to lieutenant general Alexei Dyumin, who had been appointed deputy minister of defense just two months before. This is viewed as a particularly well-timed choice, since Dyumin has managed to consolidate quickly the local elites. As a result, they are facing the upcoming elections confidently.

Among other things, all three men - Dyumin, Zinichev, and Mironov - share the experience of once having served in the Presidential Security Service (SBP), a federal agency concerned with the protection of the Russian president. Some media outlets even say that they were not just guards, but rather, the head of state’s adjutants responsible for providing him with operative information and maintaining his communications.

However, experts are not rushing to link the latest appointments to the upcoming parliamentary elections. Boris Makarenko, chairman of the board of the Center for Political Technologies, emphasizes that the political reshuffles have no connection whatsoever to the elections.

Nevertheless, if such dismissals of regional heads had happened after the September elections, they would have appeared to be punishment for the results. This was what happened last time, after the State Duma elections of 2011. In total, four governors lost their seats at the end of July, all in the regions that are considered as problematic to the party of power, United Russia.

Then again, the reshuffles carried out today may not only fail to help — they may turn out to be truly damaging, according to political analyst Alexander Kynev.

“People in the regions understand that a new appointee will inevitably make a purge,” remarks the expert. “The system is based on informal obligations and requests rather than on the distribution of authority. Now, why should someone who is going to be dismissed fulfill those obligations? A person works as long as the system takes care of him. If not, the need for obeying orders vanishes.”

Kynev maintains that such a system is essentially demoralizing and hardly capable of being sufficiently effective. In short, “it just won’t have time to get on the right track.”

“No good is expected of the ‘siloviki’ who are associated with a rather recognizable style of conduct,” he warns. “They have no relation to either politics or economy. With them as nominal rulers, the key influence will be with their retinue.”

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Thus, the appointment of men from the old trusted guard points to strengthening of the power vertical as a whole, without any connection to specific, immediate results. Putin obviously prefers the “siloviki” as people who are close and loyal to him personally.

Inside the scandals and corruption charges

With regard to the July reshuffles, a more detailed comment is due on the most significant of them — the resignation of the head of the Federal Customs Service, Andrei Belianinov. Two days before the July 26 presidential decree announcing the changes, Belianinov’s residence was searched in a case of contraband premium alcohol. In a house worth about 200 million rubles ($3 million), a few old paintings were found as well as several shoeboxes stuffed with rubles, dollars, and euros, worth a combined sum of 66 million rubles (approximately $1 million).

The country’s principal customs official lost his post although he was only involved as a witness in the case. Peskov had said two days earlier that, “There is no reason why Belianinov can’t continue his career as an official.”

Moreover, allegedly, the former head of the Federal Customs Service had ties with Dmitry Mikhalchenko, president of a major St. Petersburg holding company, who had been engaged in building the international deepwater port Bronka, which is located near St. Petersburg and could become a new rival for shipping dominance in the Baltic region. In March, the businessman was arrested in a case of contraband premium alcohol and charged with damages of 1.7 million rubles ($26,000).

Incidentally, Belianinov’s seat fell to Vladimir Bulavin, who also had worked in the KGB, dating back to 1977. When the structure was already renamed as the FSB and headed by Putin, Bulavin was the head of the Nizhniy Novgorod directorate. In addition, he worked for a long time under the secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, both in the FSB and, later, in St. Petersburg.

This is important because Patrushev is considered to be one of the most trusted individuals in Putin’s circle. Among a dozen of the president’s “Petersburg” confidantes, Patrushev is often considered to be one of the successors to the post of president. Thus, by connecting the dots, it’s possible to see the ascendance of Bulavin as a move that is favorable to Patrushev in terms of any future political ambitions.

Internecine conflict

Not only the Mikhalchenko case, but also a few other major anti-corruption cases of the two past years, including the arrest of Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, are worthy of further attention for what they tell about the Russian elite. Belykh, for example, was caught red-handed as he was receiving a bribe of 400,000 euros ($443,500).

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Moreover, consider the arrest of Sakhalin governor Alexander Khoroshavin, which was carried out by the Department of Internal Security (DIS) of the FSB under the direction of Sergey Korolev. On July 8, he was appointed to become head of the FSB Department of Economic Security (DES).

“Despite his transfer to the DES, Korolev is still in control of the DIS, and in fact, he has gained control of both structures,” comments the political analyst Mikhail Komin. “Belianinov is one of the terminal links of the case of Mikhalchenko. That case resulted in a double victory by the FSB.”

According to Komin, the case of Belianinov is a manifestation of an internecine competition within two of Russia’s “siloviki” structures - the FSB and FSO. For now, the victory went to Korolev and the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov.

It is possible that Korolev’s ambitions are in line with plans by the Kremlin to stage a shake-up and open a few anti-corruption cases on the eve of the parliamentary elections.

These include the high-profile corruption cases documented by leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The corruption case involving Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov is particularly embarrassing for the presidential administration. How did a high-ranking political official manage to amass 16 apartments in one of Moscow’s famous Stalinist-style skyscrapers, a Rolls Royce worth 40 million rubles ($610,000), and exotic Corgi dogs that fly to exhibitions in a personal jet?

As pointed out by Alexey Makarkin, the first vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies, Putin is interested in striking a balance between the different “siloviki” groups. Without a doubt, such decisions are not taken without his knowledge. It is worth noting that, more than once in the past, people have been made to resign who were regarded as tried and true members of the system.

Therefore, the matter of building a power vertical is not just about governing the regions and institutions, but also about establishing the right to membership within President Putin’s inner circle.