Vladimir Putin has sprung an August Surprise which has set the political world in Moscow on fire by removing Sergey Ivanov, his Chief of Staff and the Head of the Executive Office (Russia’s Presidential Administration), from his post.
In the Russian system the Chief of Staff and Head of the Executive Office has a key role coordinating the various departments of the government, acting as the transmitter to the bureaucracy of the President’s orders. This is therefore a critical position at the very centre of the Russian power structure and the official who occupies it is by definition a most important man. His replacement is therefore big news.
What makes the news even bigger in Ivanov’s case is that he and Putin were believed to be exceptionally close. Ivanov and Putin served together in the KGB in St. Petersburg in the 1970s and have known each other and been close friends for decades. Ivanov’s loyalty to Putin – essential for any person occupying this post – is total, and he has sometimes even been spoken of as a possible successor.
The Kremlin has released a transcript of Putin’s meeting with Ivanov and Anton Vaino – Ivanov’s successor – where the decision was made. The meeting was also televised and shown on national television.
The transcript shows that Putin is anxious to avoid the appearance that this was a sacking or that there have been any differences between Ivanov and him. He not only thanks Ivanov for his work but says he is “pleased with (Ivanov’s) performance in the areas (he has) supervised”.
Officially Ivanov asked to be dismissed himself having supposedly asked Putin to be appointed for just a four year term when he was first appointed, which has now run out. Officially Ivanov has also proposed his successor – Anton Vaino – who was previously his deputy.
It could be that all this is true. However Ivanov is being transferred from one of the important positions in the government to one of the least important – Special Representative on Environment and Transport Issues – which is a major downgrade. It is difficult to see in all this anything other than a major demotion.
There may be a possible hint in Putin’s comment as to the real reason for this step. He is reported to have said to Vaino (Ivanov’s successor) that he would “like to see as little bureaucracy as possible and a more hands-on approach to solving everyday problems faced by the Executive Office, as well as in the key areas of economic development and social issues.” There have been constant rumours going back to Ivanov’s time as Defence Minister that he is not a good manager, and in these words there may be a hint that this is the real reason he has just been removed from a post where management skills are essential.
That Putin continues to value Ivanov and that he remains an important figure in the Russian power structure and in Putin’s team is shown by the fact that Ivanov has retained his membership of Russia’s Security Council. This is Russia’s key decision making body which discusses all important issues of policy. That Ivanov has retained his membership of the Security Council shows that Putin continues to trust him and value his input on policy, and that despite his demotion Ivanov remains a force to be reckoned with. That suggests that there will be no policy changes as a result of this decision.