The Kremlin’s political reshuffle continues, this time with the replacement of the head of Russia’s presidential administration, Sergey Ivanov. What does this mean for Russia’s political elites and the way the Kremlin distributes power within the nation?

Pictured (left-right): Sergei Ivanov, the former head of Russia’s presidential administration, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: RIA Novosti

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The Aug. 12 dismissal of Sergey Ivanov, the head of Russia’s presidential administration, and his replacement by a relatively unknown deputy, Anton Vaino, came as a big surprise for political experts. There may be a lot of speculation on what the move actually means, but one thing is clear: The move came directly at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although Vladimir Putin claims that it was a voluntary resignation, it is hardly likely to be the case — one doesn’t voluntarily quit such a position as the head of the presidential administration.

The appointment of Ivanov as a special presidential envoy for the environment and transportation indicates that he is hardly likely to have done something wrong and enraged the Russian president. Such appointments are usually seen as a sort of sinecure, provided to former high-profile officials as gratitude for decent and honest service to the government.

Thus, the resignation of Ivanov should be seen as a pragmatic move: "Nothing personal, just business." However, it cannot be ruled out that Putin’s latest political shakeup is more than just a one-off move. It could be the continuation of political moves that started last year with the resignation of Vladimir Yakunin as the president of Russian Railways, the largest state railroad company. Yakunin was a close personal acquaintance of Putin who suddenly found himself on the outside looking in.

Putin now seems to be burdened with his old friends and acquaintances that he promoted himself until recently. When he was first elected President, he didn’t have a long list of candidates for key governmental posts. It was quite logical for him to pick those who worked closely with him in the KGB (now the Federal Security Service, or FSB) and the St. Petersburg administration. This is how numerous representatives of St. Petersburg, including Ivanov, received impressive promotions and were appointed to key governmental positions.    

Ivanov’s history with Putin dates back to the mid-1970s, when he worked with him in the Leningrad branch of the KGB [Leningrad was the name of St. Petersburg in the Soviet era — Editor’s note]. They worked together two years, from 1975 to 1977, and afterwards their paths diverged. While Putin went to East Germany, Ivanov found himself in Great Britain before moving to Finland and, later, Kenya. From 1991 to 1998, he worked in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

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In 1998, when Putin was appointed as the FSB director, Ivanov became one of his three deputies. Since then they have been working closely together. While working with Putin, Ivanov held a number of positions, including the secretary of Russia’s Security Council (1999-2001), defense minister (2001-2007), deputy prime minister (2005-2011) and, finally, the head of the presidential administration. 

Moreover, Ivanov was among the leading candidates to become Putin’s successor as president before the 2008 presidential elections. Putin seriously considered the choice before finally selecting then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. However, Ivanov was still included as part of Putin’s team.    

And now, the Kremlin’s head has decided to say “goodbye” to his close teammate. What are the probable reasons behind this move? It seems that in a new political environment Putin’s old friends turned into a burden. When the country’s economy was in good shape and oil prices were extremely high, Putin could afford giving key positions to his close teammates and friends. After all, the Russian budget was robust during the oil boom.

Today, during an economic recession, it is not the case. That’s why Putin has to sacrifice his friends in favor of those who are more competent, so as not to miss opportunities. This might be the reason why Yakunin resigned.     

Regarding Ivanov, even though he didn’t have access to financial flows, his position was key in determining the outlook of Putin. After all, it is Ivanov as head of the presidential administration who provided Putin with updated information about what happens inside and outside the country and what choices the country’s leadership faces.

The person who defines the president’s agenda has a great deal of power. As a result, Putin might have thought that he was becoming dependent on the current head of the presidential administration and found himself in an uncomfortable position.    

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin might have felt the same in the late 1940s: Although he had his unlimited power over the Soviet people, he was increasingly concerned with the possibility of the strengthening of his closest confidantes and, therefore, made regular reshuffles of his political deck. It is common for situations when almost unlimited power is vested in the hands of the country’s leader.      

In the future, Putin’s old friends are likely to be replaced with new ones. That is, with those individuals who cannot brag about their close ties with the Russian president, but who can introduce themselves as loyal and docile managers like Vaino, the newly appointed head of the presidential administration.

In fact, Vaino didn’t know Putin very well when the president was working in the KGB. He was born in 1972 and graduated from Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) in 1996. Vaino worked in the Foreign Ministry until 2003. Afterwards, he moved to one of the branches of the presidential administration and from then on, he has been working with Putin. In 2012, he was promoted, having become the deputy head of the presidential administration.     

Nevertheless, it is difficult to assess to what extent Putin has become familiar with Vaino and it remains unclear if they are close enough in terms of personal contacts. Most likely, Vaino is not so close to Putin. He just satisfies the president in terms of his personal characteristics and skills.

If that is the case, there won’t be close personal contacts between the Kremlin’s head and the newly appointed head of the presidential administration. It means that Vaino is hardly likely to become an influential figure with the political heft to make important decisions.

And Putin doesn’t need such a subordinate — he seems to have tired of friends who achieved political influence and power only because of proximity to him. It looks like Putin is seeking to consolidate all power in his own hands. And in such a scenario, he doesn’t need friends — he just needs those who will loyally carry out his orders.

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