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Russia: When Politics Becomes A Family Affair

  • Brian Whitmore --> Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is the prime minister's son-in-law (NATO) September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Family values dominate Russian President Vladimir Putin's new government.

The prime minister is the defense minister's father-in-law. The energy minister is the health minister's husband. The justice minister's son is married to the deputy Kremlin chief of staff's daughter.

Shortly after Putin nominated Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced his resignation. Since he was Zubkov's son-in-law, Serdyukov said, he could no longer serve in the cabinet due to conflict of interest laws. Nonsense, Putin appeared to suggest. In announcing the new cabinet on September 24, Putin rejected Serdyukov's resignation and reappointed him defense minister.

And why not? Despite a law forbidding officials to work in any job supervised or controlled by a family member, nepotism appears rampant in Putin's Russia. In its September 25 edition, the magazine "Kommersant-Vlast" identified 35 different examples of kinship ties among the Russian authorities.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov says the trend stems from Putin's tendency to rely on a small clique of people to govern.

"I think this is not normal," Nemtsov said. "It shows the personnel deficit we have under Putin. All week the president was...thinking about what kind of government he wanted to form. And it turned out to be nothing new. Why? Because the president doesn't trust anybody. He is suspicious. Even though the country is huge and has a lot of talented people, he is choosing from a small circle of people."

Conflicts Of Interest?

Analysts have warned that Putin's tendency to rely on such personal and family ties to keep his cabinet under control can lead to damaging conflicts of interest, as officials become torn between serving the country and family loyalty. Observers also warn that conflicts among family clans could develop, potentially destabilizing the workings of government.

In the federal government, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenenko and the newly named Health and Social Affairs Minister Tatyana Golikova are husband and wife. Dmitry Ustinov, the son of Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov, works in the presidential administration and is married to deputy Kremlin chief of staff Igor Sechin's daughter, Inga.

"My basic argument is that since we can't get rid of nepotism, and since it has many positive aspects that we wouldn't want to get rid of even if we could, the only thing we can do is to establish some standards of judgment and try to discern what the rules are." -- Adam Bellow, author

The family ties are just as strong in the provinces. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Chechen Prime Minister Odes Baisulatov, for example, are cousins.

Such links extend into the world of Russia's powerful state-run companies, as well. Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev's son Andrei is an adviser to the board of directors of the state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. Patrushev's other son, Dmitry, is vice president of the state-run bank Vneshtorgbank.

Began Under Yeltsin

In the Soviet Union, family ties among the authorities existed but were rare. Under Boris Yeltsin, however, power in the Kremlin was widely believed to be wielded by a group of Yeltsin's relatives and their associates dubbed "The Family" by the Russian media.

Adam Bellow, author of the book "In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History," says he is not surprised that nepotistic practices are flourishing in the Russian government -- or any other government for that matter. Bellow, himself the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, says nepotism is a natural impulse "like sex and aggression," that it is impossible to eradicate, and that it has many positive elements. It builds trust, for example, and humanizes what Bellow calls amoral bureaucracies.

"My basic argument is that since we can't get rid of nepotism, and since it has many positive aspects that we wouldn't want to get rid of even if we could, the only thing we can do is to establish some standards of judgment and try to discern what the rules are," Bellow says. "In all governments, whether democratic or not, there is a tendency for family ties to exist either at the beginning, at the outset, as in the Roman republic, or developing over time as a political class begins to take shape."

Newly named Health and Social Affairs Minister Tatyana Golikova (above) is married to Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenenko (TASS)

Bellow cites the Roman Empire, the Chinese imperial dynasty, the Renaissance papacy, and the modern United States as societies where nepotism has existed to some degree. U.S. President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert, as his attorney general, for example. Bill Clinton tasked his wife, Hillary, now a senator and presidential candidate, to formulate his health-care policy.

Nepotism Itself Isn't Corruption

In U.S. President George W. Bush's first administration, Bellow notes that Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Collin Powell, became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Elaine Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, was named secretary of labor; and the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney became deputy assistant secretary of state. Bellow argues that such cases are not intrinsically bad and that nepotism itself isn't corruption -- although it can degenerate into corruption.

"Nepotism can obviously become a form of corruption. It is, at the same time, the easiest form of corruption to address because all you have to do is shed light on it and public opprobrium immediately arises," Bellow says. "The malpractitioners of nepotism then have to immediately disavow it and back away from it. So it kind of withers in the light of day."

Bellow says nepotistic practices are most visible and manifest in what he calls "low-trust societies" with weak institutions.

"Historically, it is inevitable that elites will form because the mafia principle is the ultimate institutional principle. Everything is ultimately based on the family and its extension through various kinds of quasi-familial relationships," Bellow says. "This is where the focus of trust is in a low-trust society, which is how I would characterize Russia today, a low-trust society."

And in such societies, he adds, nepotism has the most potential to do damage.

"In the absence of a strong, centralized state with secure institutions, a market, the administration of justice, the enforcement of contracts, this is basically a mafia situation," Bellow says. "The default mode of human social organization is family rule. This is the way it has always been."

In The Family

Nepotism, the practice of appointing relatives in one's organization or in connected structures, is a time-honored tradition. The weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" recently published a list of 35 cases of kinship ties in Russian power institutions -- here are some examples:

* Aleksei Bogdanchikov, who heads the investor relations department of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, is the son of Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov.

* The daughter of Igor Sechin, who also serves as the deputy head of the presidential administration, is married to Dmitry Ustinov, the son of Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov.

* Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko's brother, Sergei Fursenko, is the chairman of Lentransgaz, a Gazprom subsidiary.

* Astrahkhan Mayor Sergei Bozhenov is married to Olga Bozhenova, the first deputy head of the committee on state organization, law, justice, and security at the Astrakhan regional parliament.

* Health and Social Affairs Minister Tatyana Golikova is the wife of Viktor Khristenko, Russia's energy minister.

* Vladimir Kulakov, the Voronezh Oblast governor, is the uncle of Sergei Zhukov, the deputy speaker of Voronezh's Regional Duma. Another nephew of Kulakov, Aleksandr Zhukov, is the deputy speaker of the Voronezh City Duma.

* The son of Tatar President Mintimer Shamiyev, Airat Shamiyev, is the president of the republic's state-owned railroad company, Dorozhny Servis Respubliki Tatarstan. Rinat Fardiyev, Shamiyev's nephew, heads a Tatar municipal district. Ilshat Fardiyev, another nephew of Shamiyev, is the director of Tatenergo, one of Russia's largest electric and power supply companies.