The resignation of Sergei Ivanov could be part of a broader political trend, in which Vladimir Putin looks to appoint new individuals who can gain experience now in order to guide the smooth transfer of power later.
Pictured left-right: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: RIA Novosti
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Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his longtime Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov with Anton Vaino, a relatively unknown Russian official. While the move appears to be a matter of political routine, the departure of such a key member of President Putin’s inner circle will likely have important implications.
In order to minimize controversy, the Kremlin announced Ivanov’s resignation in the way it usually does for top officials. Ivanov even appeared on Russian state TV, still in President Putin’s good graces for all to see. Normally, major decisions concerning key personnel are taken closer to the weekend, in order to avoid too many comments and speculations. Even better if it’s a summer weekend and people are away on vacation, as in the case of Ivanov.
According to different sources, Ivanov, who was Putin’s right-hand man and one of the most influential and reasonable persons in the Kremlin, left due to personal reasons. He had asked the president for such a resignation several times before, especially after the tragic death of his son [The 37-year-old son of presidential chief of staff Sergei Ivanov drowned while vacationing in the United Arab Emirates in November 2014 – Editor's note].
Now, after the resignation, he can focus on the activity where he is most passionate – protecting the environment. Ivanov is famous for his zeal in wildlife protection (especially Amur tigers and leopards), and is considered an expert in this area. Taking into account that 2017 will be celebrated in Russia as the year of environmental protection, such an appointment is quite symbolic and may become a source of significant support for future environmental initiatives.
In addition, Ivanov’s new title as special presidential representative includes the word “transport” [he is expected to become a special presidential envoy for the environment and transportation – Editor's note]. And this makes his position much more than just a sinecure. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and one that is also in the permanent focus of the President, as Russia’s infrastructure projects are regarded as paramount for national development.
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In addition, Moscow also plans to invest significantly in transportation before the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Moreover, one of the competing national economic strategies implies an increase in spending on infrastructure development using the nation’s current limited reserves. So Putin really needs someone he can trust to supervise this industry and its huge financial flows.
Nonetheless, there might be some political implications of the replacement of Ivanov with Vaino. As the new Chief of Staff, Vaino has immediate access to the President and determines his daily schedule. This makes him extremely influential; in short, Vaino is the person now determining which events will include the participation of Putin and, as such, he can regulate the flow of visitors and guests attending them.
At the same time, Vaino has never abused his power, nor has he been mentioned in any political scandals and behind the-scenes power games. He is equally distant from both different business and power groups in the president’s inner circle.
His alleged affiliation with one of the nation’s oligarchs – Sergey Chemezov, one of the most influential people in the Russian defense industry and the head of Russia's state high-tech corporation Rostec — is weak at best. Vaino is hardly a lobbyist of the specific interests of Chemezov (after all, Chemezov has his own direct and reliable access to the President).
Meanwhile, Vaino’s neutrality and technocratic background might be convenient for Putin and could have at least two explanations. The first one is that he is a temporary figure and will be replaced in one or two years by a different person with much greater influence and interest in politics.
The second version is that the President’s Office could gradually lose its political importance and become more and more a technical and administrative staff. After all, Putin needs stable institutions for the painless succession of power. Hence, he may eventually decide to strengthen other bodies, such as the government and the parliament, during his next presidency. This will reduce the risks and make the system more sustainable.
Political maneuvering ahead of the 2018 presidential elections is already under way. As part of this process, it may even turn out that Putin will decide to hold early elections in September 2017, such that the parliament and the president are elected on the same day. For the new presidency, Putin needs people who will work better, be more accountable and have a vested interest in protecting the overall system.
As a rule, these people reside in the second echelon of power, one step removed from those in Putin’s inner circle, such as Ivanov. They can be fully trusted (like ex-bodyguards) or be highly professional and unbiased. And their growth depends on Putin only, which makes them loyal.
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However, Putin’s circle of old friends (from the KGB or from St. Petersburg) is still valid and their opinion is relevant. Nevertheless, this generation continues to grow older, and by 2018 (to say nothing of 2024), they may not be able to ensure the smooth transfer of power.
The President is promoting members of the new generation - those in their 40s and 50s, who now can get leadership experience and skills, form teams and gain the acceptance of the general public. This new elite will provide for stability and continuity after Putin’s retirement.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.