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Musical Chairs In The Kremlin

President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of newly appointed government ministers on May 21.

President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of newly appointed government ministers on May 21.

Igor Sechin is out as deputy prime minister and energy "tsar" -- and in as CEO of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft. Rashid Nurgaliyev is out as interior minister -- and in as deputy head of the Security Council. Elvira Nabiullina and Tatyana Golikova are out as economy minister and health minister -- but both are in as Kremlin advisers.

And the game of musical chairs goes on.

Assessments of Russia's new cabinet on May 21 largely depended on what one chose to focus on. The question on everyone's mind initially seemed to be whether it would truly be Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government or an extension of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

The appointment of close Putin ally Igor Shuvalov as first deputy prime minister drove a narrative that Medvedev would be a weak "technical" prime minister and the Kremlin would run the show.

But the high turnover (three-quarters of the government was replaced), the (widely expected) exclusion of siloviki stalwarts like Sechin and Nurgaliyev, and the high rank of liberal technocrats like Arkady Dvorkovich led some to conclude that it was Medvedev's cabinet and it would be reformist.

To be sure, some horse trading took place. Medvedev wanted Dvorkovich in, Sechin out, and Vladislav Surkov as his chief of staff. Putin wanted Shuvalov as first deputy prime minister to keep an eye on things.

But as today's Kremlin appointments illustrate, whether the cabinet was "Putin's" or "Medvedev's" was the wrong question.

In addition to bringing Sechin back as Rosneft chairman, Putin named seven members of his former government to posts in his presidential administration -- which will be headed by chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, a longtime Putin ally and KGB crony.

The ruling elite remains intact and real power -- as it has always been with the exception of Medvedev's presidency -- will be concentrated in the Kremlin. The same two dozen or so people, the so-called "collective Putin" that makes up the core of Russia's "Deep State," will still be calling all the shots (and some of them, like businessmen Gennady Timchenko and Yury Kovalchuk, won't have any official titles).

The past two days' appointment marathon suggests that Putin is trying to preserve the old status quo in which a tight ruling circle ruled out of sight, while the formal institutions of governance were a show for public consumption.

The important question now is whether that is possible in today's rapidly changing and hypercharged political environment.

As Putin tries to salvage his old system, an invigorated civil society appears determined to thwart him at every turn. The fact that Putin's inauguration, which was supposed to be a coronation displaying his command of the country, was overshadowed by nonstop street protests looks like a harbinger of where things are headed.

And as Putin appears to be trying to turn the clock back to 2007, many in the elite appear to have other ideas. Whether you look at the current schism in the elite as one between "shareholders" who favor the status quo and "managers" who see a need for change (as I blogged here) or between "siloviki" who want tough authoritarian rule and "technocrats" who favor a softer touch -- the split is real and in today's environment could soon become debilitating.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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