A rotation of the Russian elites has become a defining feature of President Vladimir Putin’s governing style, as he seeks to consolidate power among those he trusts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Presidential Envoy to the Crimean Federal District Oleg Belaventsev meet at the Kremlin. Belaventsev has been appointed Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. Photo: RIA Novosti

The Kremlin has once again reshuffled the political elites in the Russian regions – and this time, the moves extended as far as Crimea. President Vladimir Putin dismissed the head of the Federal Customs Service, Andrei Belianinov, and replaced three presidential envoys to federal districts as well as a few governors. Meanwhile, he made the Crimean Federal District part of the Southern Federal District.

As might be expected, there are many interpretations of what actually happened. The main conclusion made by experts about Putin’s decisions is that he has attempted a “fine tuning” of political life in the regions. In addition, he delivered a message to the regional elites that they are under supervision. It is also important to note that a majority of the new appointees are individuals who are loyal to Putin personally (some of them coming from the law enforcement structures), rather than just some functionaries with the right managerial experience.

Tightening of financial discipline

Essentially, the reshuffling announced last week can be grouped into four directions. The first includes resignations and appointments. The Presidential Envoy to the Northwestern Federal Region, Vladimir Bulavin, has replaced Belianinov as the head of the Federal Customs Service, while the post of envoy has been given to Nikolai Tsukanov, who formerly headed the Kaliningrad Region. In turn, Russia’s westernmost region has come under the governance of the head of the regional department of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Yevgeny Zinichev.

According to Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, this is a way of signaling to the elites that it is time to tighten financial discipline. “This accounts for the replacements in the Federal Customs Service,” says Salin. “As to the strategically important Kaliningrad Region, the authority has been passed to a man from the security services.”

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Crimean direction

The second direction is the Crimean one. Here, the Crimean Federal District has been merged with the Southern District. The head of the old Crimean Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev, has been appointed to the North Caucasian Federal District, while its former head, Sergei Melikov, has been sent to serve in Russia’s new law enforcement structure, the Russian National Guard. Another change in Crimea is that Sevastopol Governor Sergei Meniaylo has been made Envoy to the Siberian Federal District. Its former head,Nikolai Rogozhkin, appears to be going into retirement.

This is a message to the Crimean elites, Salin says with confidence. “The national leader has virtually cancelled the special status that Crimea enjoyed after its incorporation into Russia and demonstrated that privileges are not forever. Crimea has been attached to the Southern Federal District,” says the political analyst.

It is important to realize, he argues, that Sevastopol, which houses a major military base, is now going to be governed by a civilian, although with a law enforcement past.

“The military have been displaced, they were not up to it. Meniaylo and Belaventsev were not up to the job. They are good performers, but today more flexible people are needed,” says Salin.

Problem regions

The third direction includes the heads of problem regions. Putin has replaced the head of Kirov Region, Nikita Belykh, who for the past few weeks has been in custody on a bribery charge. Now Kirov has been given a new governor in the person of Igor Vasilyev, a former head of the Russian Registry (Rosreestr). The head of Yaroslavl Region, who was considered the weakest of the regional representatives, has been dismissed. His post has been passed to the former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Dmitry Mironov.

“In the regions, civilians proved unable to control the situation, they are replaced with ‘siloviki’,” says the analyst. “Primarily, such decisions have been taken about two typical Russian regions: the Kaliningrad Region and the Yaroslavl Region. Both are of a problem sort, one peripheral, the other central. In fact, governor-generals have been appointed to both regions,” explains Salin.

Alexey Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Infrastructure, is certain that, by doing so, Putin is trying to strike a balance in the power verticals in these particular regions.

“Here, we’re talking of Russia’s strategic regions — Kaliningrad, Crimea, Yaroslavl. Government reshuffles and the coming to power of people from law enforcement and security communities is also understandable,” the analyst said.

“Since the 2000s, this is where Putin has found officers to act as crisis managers." Mukhin added. "They are capable of doing their job in a battle-like environment, which makes them the most efficient performers. When they have gained political weight, they will be able to run as candidates in the future elections.”

The fourth category includes the dismissal of Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov. He is going to be replaced with another officer from the law enforcement structures, Mikhail Babich, which reflects the general trend: the most problematic regions and countries neighboring Russia require appointees from Putin’s milieu. That is, people whom he trusts the most.

The personnel shakeup won’t impact upcoming elections

According to experts, the sweeping character of personnel changes is in line with Putin’s governing style. Most often, he takes a number of personnel decisions at once.

“The President’s personnel policy has this peculiar feature. If personnel questions do not require a swift solution, he accumulates a certain package and then, once every three to six months, a rotation takes place,” Mukhin explains. “For example, about a half year ago he replaced a huge number of generals in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”

Salin shares this view. He is certain that currently there is a demand for new faces in politics. This is true of elections and, partly, of administrations of various levels.

“At the moment, society is bringing forth a demand for the renovation of power as a whole and renovation of the approaches of particular persons. It is not a first step. Also, this impulse will play out in elections,” he points out.

The pundits, including Mukhin, point out that the reshuffles are not essentially connected to the upcoming elections and are not going to impact the electoral process. The most conspicuous feature of the reshuffles is the coming to power of many people with the law enforcement background. However, as liberal politician Leonid Gozman points out, it is not the main point.

“In my opinion, the key point is that the new appointees are people who the President trusts personally. The fact that loyalty of that kind is necessary already indicates that there is a crisis of the system,” he explains. “Of course, the appointments of people from enforcement agencies are noteworthy, but this is secondary.”

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The institution of the Presidential Envoy in the regions is losing importance — this is another conclusion that can be drawn from the President’s decision, Salin argues.

“These people have a status of deputy heads of the presidential administration, but in reality, they perform the functions of a presidential assistant," he said. "Fifteen years ago, they were the sovereign’s eyes in the regions, but since the regions were brought to submission, the importance of Presidential Envoys has reduced greatly. Envoys not going to be abolished, but they have been losing weight steadily, and the latest reshuffles are another blow to them.”

In contrast, Mukhin is certain that this institute is obviously important and should not be underestimated.

“It is their business to see that the regional legislation is consistent with the federal one, and that money is spent as decreed," he said. "They are intermediaries between the regionals and President, creating a feedback between the two. If this institution is eliminated, chaos will ensue”

The next step

Salin believes that new reshuffles can be expected as early as this fall, after the 2016 parliamentary elections.

“The future the regional elites will be given more shake-ups," he said. "They have been sent a message already as three governors have been arrested. Nothing else is going to happen now, on the eve of the elections, but afterwards, some measures against the regional elites will be taken,” he says. “The population shows their dissatisfaction with the everyday activity of the regional government — roads and clinics leave much to be desired. And the regional heads are incapable of meeting this demand.”