With just weeks to go until parliamentary elections in September, the Kremlin surprised everyone with a major shakeup of the political elites in the Russian regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a meeting with the State Duma officials in the Kremlin in Moscow, July 14, 2016. Photo: Pool Photo via AP

Already, the rumors are starting to fly about what a significant reshuffling of officials in the Russian regions might mean. Making matters even more opaque, the day before the reshuffle, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the merging of two of the country’s federal districts into one, as well as the replacement of two regional governors. The Kremlin called the moves a “simple rotation,” but political analysts are not so convinced.

One interpretation of the events is that the wheels of the Russian government are so stuck in the mud of corruption, that hitting the accelerator just doesn’t work anymore. Even with a major reshuffling of elites, the country remains stuck in place.

Who was replaced and why?

The least surprising of the moves are the resignations. The massive corruption scandals surrounding Kirov governor Nikita Belykh and the head of the federal customs service, Andrei Belianinov, could not have ended in any other way. If Putin allowed these scandals to be broken by the national media, it is an indication that he had no intention of keeping these individuals in their respective positions.

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It is also clear how things stand with the following governors: Sergei Meniaylo of Sevastopol, Nikolai Tsukanov of the Kaliningrad Region, and Sergei Yastrebov of the Yaroslavl region. Meniaylo was not in the right position from the very beginning. He was a stranger in Sevastopol, and soon began having conflicts with the recognized leader of the so-called Russian Spring, Aleksei Chaly, who for a while held the post of speaker of the local legislative assembly [The Russian Spring refers to the massive demonstrations in Crimea in support of joining Russia in February in 2014 — Editor's note]. There were rumors that it was Chaly who recommended Meniaylo for the post of governor in the first place, but was quickly disappointed with his performance.

There were also many rumors about Tsukanov’s impending resignation in Kaliningrad. Many scandals already swirled around his name. The same could be said of Yastrebov in Yaroslavl: There were suggestions that he and his associates were always “misplacing funds.” But was this signal or noise? These allegations have been circulating since 2012, when Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader and vocal critics of the Kremlin, was elected as regional member of parliament and came out with a number of colorful findings potentially implicating Yastrebov. Because of this, the governor was questioned after Nemtsov’s murder in February, 2015.

The resignation of Mikhail Zurabov from the post of Russian ambassador to Ukraine was surprising only by the amount of time it took to make final. On the whole, this should have happened some two and a half years ago, after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.

But at that time, there were other concerns and it was more logical to have a complete diplomatic rift between the two countries, rather than a replacement of the ambassador. So the tense political atmosphere that surrounded the events in Ukraine can explain the delayed removal of Zurabov. There was an apparent risk that Ukrainian officials simply would not accept a new ambassador, or maybe not any ambassador at all.

There is also nothing surprising about the merging of the Crimean Federal District with the Southern one. Just by their size, Crimea and Sevastopol are not large enough to warrant their own administrative district. Their special status was justified by the “extreme” circumstances that caused them to become part of Russia. The moment the Kremlin decided the transition period was over, they revoked their special status. The peninsula is well integrated, and will treat Crimea as any other region.

Besides, the addition of Crimea to the Southern Federal District is a sort of compensation for depriving them of the republics of the North Caucasus in January 2010, when former President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree on the foundation of the North Caucasian Federal District. It included seven regions, which formerly were parts of the Southern Federal District: the Stavropol Region and six North Caucasian republics, including Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Chechnya.

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The least obvious is the resignation of Nikolai Rogozhkin from the post of Siberian Federal District, considering that he was at this post for two years. Apparently he was judged unfit for anything but retirement (next year he will be 65, an advanced age for a government official).

Meet the replacements

There are a lot more questions about the new officials who have replaced those who resigned. They are not well known to the general public, and perhaps even to the people who appointed them. In Sevastopol, Meniaylo was replaced by former minister of trade Dmitri Ovsiannikov. Belykh in the Kirov region was replaced by the head of the Russian registry Igor Vasilyev.

Evgeniy Zinichev, head of the local security services, will take Tsukanov’s position in the Kaliningrad Region. Belianinov, head of customs, will be replaced by the presidential envoy in the Northwestern Federal District, Vladimir Bulavin. Zurabov is likely to step down for Mikhail Babich, the presidential envoy in the Volga Region.

Other appointments almost take on the quality of a game of musical chairs. Meniaylo is sent to the Siberian Federal District to take Rogozhkin’s position and Tsukanov to the Southwestern Federal District to take Bulavin’s position. Left without a place in Crimea, Oleg Belaventsev will take a similar post in the North Caucasus. Sergei Melikov, who held the post previously, became the assistant director of the Russian National Guard.

If one compares this situation with the political elites to a deck of cards, one can say that Putin just reshuffled the deck as he saw fit, removing some cards, and replacing others. Most of the new replacements are political nobodies. That is to say, they are people who have not been brilliant politicians, and who will not likely have glamorous political futures.

The fact that many of them come from the security services just shows Putin’s personal preference for people “of the system.” In these considerations, qualities such as professionalism and qualifications to perform the job mean little.

A historical precedent

All of this is reminiscent of the ministerial reshuffle of the Russian Empire in 1914-1916. In this period alone, the council of ministers witnessed many changes: four chairmen, six interior ministers, four military ministers, and four ministers of justice and land reform.

Before the First World War, though, there was some sort of logic that dictated the replacement of ministers. Each one of them had a particular function: Sergei Witte was charged with calming revolutionary sentiments, Petr Stolypin was charged with reforms, Vladimir Kokovtsov charged with finances. But after 1914 the logic vanished. A person was put in a post, then he was a disappointment, and the process was repeated.

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Putin's previous government reshufflings also involved some strange decisions. In 2004, Mikhail Fradkov, Russia's Permanent Envoy to the EU, became Prime Minister. In 2007, Viktor Zubkov, the head of the Council of Ministers of the Russia-Belarus Union State, succeded him. The move of Dmitry Medvedev to the position of Prime Minister in 2012 following his presidency was also unusual. But at least some logic could be found in these three appointments.

Fradkov replaced then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in February 2004 and this replacement meant that Putin did not need independent figures next to him anymore. When Putin replaced Fradkov with Zubkov in September 2007, he tried to confuse those observers wondering who exactly would succeed him after the 2008 presidential elections. When Putin appointed Medvedev as Prime Minister in May 2012, it was a matter of gratitude to the latter for the fact that he agreed to give up his presidential bid in September 2011.

Now, the logic is altogether absent. If an incompetent official, instead of being deposed is promoted and moved, and a completely unknown person takes his position, then this is no longer a political reshuffling. Rather, it is some sort of irrational game.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.