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Why the political situation in Russia is so calm

Personnel changes and reforms of the police and internal security agencies point to a calm situation with the government fully in control and the political system functioning normally.

The recent reshuffle in the Kremlin discussed by Nathaniel Habibullin and by me, and the very low-key parliamentary election campaign recently discussed by Adam Garrie, all serve to underline the same point: the political situation in Russia is stable and calm.

Whatever the reasons for the Ivanov reshuffle (and in addition to the points previously made by Nathaniel Habibullin and myself it is worth adding that Ivanov recently suffered the tragedy of the death of his son in an accident, which may have diminished his capacity for work) there is no reason to think it implies any sudden shift in policy or that it is the result of any power struggle in the Kremlin. 

Whatever Sergey Ivanov’s faults as a manager Putin would be unlikely to agree to the removal of so loyal a man if he felt that his own position was coming under challenge or if he thought that the situation in the country was becoming unstable.  On the contrary the fact that Putin agreed to Ivanov’s removal is a sign of his confidence in the stability of the political situation in the country.

As for the parliamentary election campaign, my opinion is that domestic factors are more important in deciding how Russians vote than foreign policy ones.  However early indications are that United Russia by riding on Putin’s coat-tails will maintain or even increase its share of the vote, with less reason to worry that the vote is going to be manipulated than was the case in the parliamentary elections in 2011. 

What is striking about this election is how much more low-key the campaign has been by comparison with 2011.  During the 2011 election campaign media talk then centred on Navalny’s description of United Russia as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves”, though how much impact that had on how Russians actually voted is open to doubt.  There has been nothing like that this time largely because, with no prospect of a tandem switch between Medvedev and Putin and with Putin firmly in control and enjoying stratospheric poll ratings, prospects of a major political change are so much lower.

In the quest to prove that there are hidden stirrings of unrest beneath the placid surface some media commentators as is their wont have connected together entirely unrelated things to create a narrative of a darkening picture.  Thus the Ivanov reshuffle, a reshuffle of certain regional governors and of other regional officials, the appointment of Kudrin to an advisory post, and the recent announcement of the formation of a National Guard, are all taken as signs of a gathering political crisis.

A reshuffle of regional governors and officials is however a routine event in Russia.  There is nothing unusual or interesting about the latest one.  It is in fact impossible to see in any of the recent personnel changes whether at the centre or in the regions any evidence of a systematic purge of the power structure in one direction or another. 

Sergey Ivanov and Vladimir Yakunin (who in January stepped down from his position as head of the Russian Railways) are generally thought of as anti-Western hardliners.  Nikita Belykh, recently sacked as Governor of the Kirov Region following his arrest on corruption charges, is however a prominent liberal, as is Mikhail Zurabov who was recently sacked in disgrace from his post as ambassador to Ukraine.  It is impossible to see in these dismissals any evidence either of a liberal or of a conservative shift on the part of the government.

As for the National Guard, its formation has been ably discussed by the Saker and by Gordon Hahn.  In my opinion it is a purely administrative reorganisation of no political significance.  Certainly it is not a case of the setting up of some sort of Praetorian Guard to defend “Putin and the regime” from the people.  On the contrary it has been under discussion in Russia since at least 2012, and follows logically from the police reform of 2011. 

That attempted to increase public confidence in the police and to improve its work as a law enforcement agency by civilianising it (thus the change in its name from “militsia” to “politsia”) and by centralising it at a federal level.  It made total sense therefore, and is fully in line with the philosophy of the 2011 police reform, to separate from the police and the Interior Ministry (which administers the police) the various paramilitary formations (the Interior Ministry troops, the OMON riot police, the MVD Spetsnaz units etc) that the Interior Ministry had acquired during the Soviet period, and to consolidate them in a new agency, which would be called the National Guard.  

That way the police and the Interior Ministry become purely civilian law enforcement agencies – as the police reform of 2011 intended they should be.

What both the reshuffle of the governors and the reorganisation of the Interior Ministry and the setting up of the National Guard in fact show is how stable the situation in the country is.  No government that felt itself under serious threat would reshuffle its personnel in the regions or embark on a complex reorganisation of its internal security agencies on the eve of parliamentary elections if there was a serious danger of public unrest.  That the Russian government feels able to do both things is a sign of how secure it feels itself to be.

The degree of misunderstanding there is in relation to these issues is shown by some of the discussions that have centred on the person of Vladimir Kolokolstev, Russia’s Interior Minister.  There have been suggestions that Putin set up the National Guard because he does not fully trust Kolokoltsev and does not feel he can rely on him in case of public unrest.  It was also widely reported that Kolokoltsev was so upset by the setting up of the National Guard that he offered to resign.

If Putin genuinely feared public unrest and distrusted Kolokoltsev he would presumably sack him and replace him with someone more reliable, not leave someone he doesn’t trust in his post whilst carrying out a complicated reorganisation of the country’s internal security agencies which in the short term can only disorganise them and make them less able to cope with public unrest. 

In reality Kolokoltsev was made Interior Minister in May 2012 directly following the 2011 police reform precisely because he is a veteran police officer (he has served continuously in the police since 1982) and is therefore the obvious man to head the Interior Ministry as it is converted into a strictly civilian police agency.  Far from opposing the setting up of the National Guard Kolokoltsev must have anticipated it when he was appointed.  Almost certainly he was involved in creating it.

The episode of the police reform and of the setting up of the National Guard shows something else: that when Russia does carry out a reform of the sort its critics constantly demand, such as one intended to make its police more accountable and responsive and better suited for work in a modern democratic society, it gets no credit for doing it.  Instead the reform gets interpreted in the most sinister imaginable way.

Lastly, on the subject of Kudrin, I have discussed his appointment previously, and made clear my doubts that his appointment to a purely consultative post has any great relevance to the overall political situation in the country.  Whilst it is possible and even likely that following the elections a government reshuffle of some sort will occur, I personally doubt that Putin will appoint Kudrin – a deeply unpopular and highly polarising figure – either Prime Minister or Finance Minister as some people fear and other people hope.  Nor on the strength of what I heard Kudrin say during the SPIEF conference in St. Petersburg in June do I see why Putin would want to do so given that Kudrin’s programme seems to differ little from that of the existing government.

Overall and for whatever reason, Russia on the eve of the parliamentary elections is stable.  There is much criticism of the government – unsurprising given that there has been a recession (see my discussion here) – but its legitimacy and authority are not in doubt, whilst Putin’s popularity is stratospheric and his authority is unchallenged.  Any Western officials or commentators hoping for signs that the situation in Russia is slipping out of control are going to be disappointed.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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