New political appointments within the Presidential Administration and State Duma could be further signs that the Kremlin is already preparing for presidential elections in 2018.

Pictured: Sergei Kiriyenko, the recently appointed deputy chief of staff. Photo: RIA Novosti

According to Russia’s top political experts, there are three factors influencing the Kremlin’s recent political reshuffle: the need to prepare for the 2018 presidential election, the search for new channels of communications with the population and a desire to strengthen the parliament.

Today, the social contract – economic prosperity and well-being in exchange for political freedoms – is changing. So, too, is the political environment around Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently, the Kremlin undertook a large-scale reshuffle of political personnel, with a number of regional presidential envoys and governors replaced. These changes have even impacted the presidential administration, where Putin appointed a new chief of staff, Anton Vaino.

The latest move is the appointment of Sergei Kiriyenko, general director of  Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), to the position of first deputy chief of staff. He replaced Vyacheslav Volodin, who became the speaker of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament.

Kiriyenko is seen as an establishment liberal, who could easily get along with members of the opposition, including Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in downtown Moscow on February 28, 2015. Before the 1998 default in Russia, Kiriyenko was the country’s prime minister, with many experts holding him responsible for fostering the economic crisis and the default. His government was eventually dismissed.

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As the leader of the liberal party Union of Right Forces (now defunct), Kiriyenko received a deputy mandate in the Russian parliament in 2000. The same year, he was appointed as Russia’s presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District.

This experience was seen as very successful, because he fostered loyalty among regional politicians toward the federal center. This was the key goal of presidential envoys. Within five years, he became the head of Rosatom, where he dealt with atomic energy issues.

Kiriyenko the loyal technocrat

Because of the turbulent ups and downs early in his career, Kiriyenko was dubbed as the “kinder-surprise” within the political community. However, his new appointment didn’t come as a surprise at all. As Russian political experts argue, the very appointment of Kiriyenko was expected and discussed in media circles. Many pundits assume that Kiriyenko is hardly likely to promote his own political agenda and won’t be independent.   

Even though Kiriyenko has a lot of merits — he is indeed a good manager — there is no reason to expect significant changes,” Russian politician and democratic activist Leonid Gozman told Russia Direct. “All decisions are taken by the president of the country, not by the representatives of his administration. Probably, Putin has modified his course, which will be more convenient to Kiriyenko than to Volodin. But it is necessary to keep in mind that none of the president’s team can conduct independent policy.”

Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, agrees. He argues that the appointment of Kiriyenko won’t be a game-changer.

“Kiriyenko, like Volodin, are technocrats who just execute orders. They have just a different career path and style of communication. Yet both don’t try to come up with their own agenda,” Salin told Russia Direct. “Kiriyenko will fulfill only the tasks presented by the president himself.”

Shifts in the political landscape

According to Salin, the political shifts can be explained with Russia’s urgent need to make its parliament a more powerful and influential center of political force. And Volodin, with his impressive political credentials, does make a nice fit for the position of chief speaker of the State Duma.

“Volodin was not accused of doing his work in the wrong way,” the expert said. “He is just more suitable to the position of the speaker of the State Duma, which under his guidance is expected to turn into an influential political center, which hasn’t been the case so far.”

However, Gozman suspects that the recent appointments in the presidential administration are related to the 2018 presidential elections and the need to address the concerns of those Russians, who are indignant with the authorities.

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“Kiriyenko’s key task will be the preparation for the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 2018, given there are rumors that the election might be rescheduled to 2017,” said Gozman. “At any rate, these presidential elections will be not an easy task for Putin’s team, even though it seems to be obvious that he or his successor will be elected. The problem is that the elections might trigger very serious political processes, with many people unsatisfied [with the current situation]. And their number might significantly increase in one and a half year.”

In contrast, Salin doesn’t think that the recent reshuffle within the Kremlin’s administration is related to the 2018 elections at all. According to him, the authorities are just looking for ways to establish communication with the country’s population.

“The situation is changing and the President has to respond to it,” he said. “The social contract between the authorities and population has lost its relevance. Previously, it added up to the social and economic commitments – loyalty in exchange for income growth. In 2014, the contract was modified – loyalty in exchange for political successes [the incorporation of Crimea]. However, the recent edition of the contract requires incessant confirmation and foreign policy victories. The authority cannot fulfill this obligation, because the events in Ukraine and Syria can hardly be seen as successes.”

In order to satisfy the demands of the population in their search for foreign policy victories, the Kremlin should give a new Crimea every year, Salin argues. Today the Russian leadership should find a new victory that will fuel patriotic sentiments and strengthen people’s loyalty.

“It seems to me that a new proposal will be within the mobilization scenario,” the expert added. Recently, military exercises took place, with the authorities trying to figure out if society is ready to tighten its belt and mobilize around the authorities, Salin concluded.