At the same time as the Kremlin is shaking up the nation’s political elite to bring in fresh perspectives, the mood of most Russians is surprisingly apathetic. They have been desensitized to the constant rotation of the political elite.

The renewal of the political elite has been on the agenda for quite a long time, at least for five years. Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin delay these changes for so long? Photo: RIA Novosti

The real balance of power within the political elite, which continues to define the direction of development of Russia, has always been more important than any formal titles or official rules of the game. To understand the nature of power in modern Russia, then, it is important to understand all the informal relationships that define political life in the nation.

That’s especially important to keep in mind today, when we are witnessing a genuine revolution in the ranks of the political elite. However, this is not only about changes resulting from the Russian parliamentary elections (although the State Duma’s individual composition significantly changed), but also about the series of resignations and promotions in the different branches and levels of power.

The resignation of the Russian Presidential Administration’s Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov was an important development, as were resignations in the Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee. Some of those who resigned or changed their current job did it willingly. At least, that was the official line of Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who said there was nothing unusual in these changes – the rotation was planned in advance. And it seems to be at least partially true.

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On the other hand, there were different cases where officials were removed for unexpected reasons. The Governor of Kirov, Nikita Belykh, moved from the governor’s chair directly into prison. Moreover, the head of the Federal Customs Services, Andrei Belianinov, also became subject to a formal investigation, probably a hint that the authorities suspect him of illegally pocketing income from his job as customs chief.

Therefore, the resignations had different underlying reasons, but the mere fact that the entire layer of political elite was changed looks rather unusual and worrisome. So, is there a deeper significance to all these changes?

As part of a major research project, the biographies and political backgrounds of the various politicians (members of parliament, government officials, governors) were examined. There is one obvious conclusion: The renewal of the political elite has been on the agenda for quite a long time, at least for five years.

The obvious question becomes: Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin delay these changes for so long? One potential explanation is that he had a major issue with the state of the “HR reserves.” He constantly selected his senior executives from his inner circle: those he knew personally, those whom he trusted and those who came with him from St. Petersburg. As a result, the issue of how to find new officials was unresolved for quite a long time.

It was connected with two major reasons. The first major reason is corruption – the perennial problem of Russian politics. It is quite obvious (at least in hindsight) that a person who headed the Federal Customs Service took bribes. One does not need to be a political scientist to understand that. However, bribes are just an external symptom of the disease that poisoned the Russian political system in the post-Soviet period.

From that perspective, elite change is a natural cure to cleanse the political system of corrupt officials. However, it is important not just in the context of the parliamentary elections. This elite change is especially needed to demonstrate to Russian citizens that those in power have a responsibility to the people and must be above dishonesty and corruption.

In fact, there is a much deeper reason: It is the ineffectiveness of the system, which is dominated by the informal rules of the game. Putin is well-informed about who is bribed and when. On the one hand, this knowledge helps him to control these people. However, the economic problems and the necessity to handle the financial crisis, which were compounded by Russia’s difficulties in accessing external markets – all of these made Putin conduct a more active anti-corruption policy.

Apart from that, there is a problem of how to replace the people who have been ruling the country with the representatives of the new generation. Here the situation varies within different strata of the Russian political elite. For instance, while there are a lot of young ministers in the current government, the situation is different with the governors. The recent dismissals that happened over the last two months were not only connected to corruption scandals, but can also be part of a broader effort to replace people who were tired of their work with those willing and eager to work in a new way.

The replacements are happening at all levels of the political leadership and the way these changes are being implemented have a lot in common with the recent road renovations in Moscow. These, too, were taking place all over the city, all at once. Maybe such an approach can be applicable to resolve the problem of traffic jams in Russia’s capital, but if such “renovations” are happening in all parts of the government “machine,” it is very likely that it will not run very fast.  

In any institution where the dismissal of its head is anticipated, the work will be halted, as employees will sit and wait until the new head is appointed. This is natural. Nonetheless, it seems that Putin thought the same way as Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin did with regard to the city’s renovation – it is better to change everything all at once, so that it works well as soon as possible.

While the problem of the government’s inefficiency remains relevant today, the problem of the government’s rejuvenation is not as simple to resolve as one might think. This is not a simple replacement of a 50-year-old official with a younger 40-year-old official.

An interesting example in this regard is the appointment of the president’s new chief of staff, Anton Vaino, a young official with limited experience in politics (and, therefore, political intrigues). As a MGIMO University graduate, Vaino is a specialist on Japan and previously worked in the department of Protocol. There are different speculative theories about his appointment, but it is quite likely that Putin is replacing the old team with young people because they will not treat him as an equal. Instead, they will look up to him and, after receiving power from his hands, will be indebted to him personally. This is a purely psychological explanation, of course, but it seems to make sense.

The State Duma elections were dull and lacked intrigue. This is a worrying sign and not just with respect to the theory of democracy, but because today the country is going through very serious challenges. The most widespread fear among the public is the fear of war. Such fears were common during the first years after the Second World War and then during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis.

For many years, these fears did not exist, but today the situation is changing and people once again are afraid of war. This is not only the result of Russian propaganda, but also the result of people’s feelings and serious challenges. In this situation, the population is politically demobilized. It has lost interest in politics and any debate over political parties and programs. This is a worrying situation – if something serious happens, such as a natural catastrophe or an actual war – it may be difficult to mobilize the public.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.