Russian media roundup: the Kremlin reshuffles the political deck, another official is taken down by corruption and some athletes leave for Brazil as the doping sandal remains unresolved

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with defense officials in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP.

Last week the Russian media spilled ink over the implications of President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected government reshuffle, which elevated several members of the security services to more important positions — including that of ambassador to Ukraine.

The papers also noted that the increased influence of the Federal Security Service (FSB) also was on display as the head of the Russian customs service was forced to resign following charges of embezzlement. And, with the start of the 2016 Summer Games less than a week away, the press discussed the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to let individual sports federations clear athletes and what the long-term effects of the doping scandal might be on Russian sport.

Russian government reshuffle

On July 28, President Vladimir Putin announced a shake-up in the ranks of the government affecting 15 high-ranking officials. The Kaliningrad, Yaroslavl and Kirov Regions and the federal city of Sevastopol all received new governors. Changes also were made within the ranks of presidential representatives to the federal districts and the security services. In its coverage of the changes, the Russian press focused on two lines of discussion: whether the move represented a purge of the elites and the short list of candidates to fill important positions.

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In its reporting on the events, the independent online media outlet, Slon, argues that it was important to look at the position changes independently rather than as a whole. Some of the changes had been long-discussed, but others could represent a new direction for the Russian government bureaucracy.

Previously, Slon writers pointed out, the key to survival for a high-ranking bureaucrat was a personal friendship with the president and loyalty to him. Now, however, it appears that the president has decided to stop handing out “indulgences.”

Slon also noted that the new appointments once again strengthened the position of the security services — individuals with ties to the FSB were given governors’ posts in two regions. These appointments suggest a possible shortage of trusted officials to tap for the jobs.

In a comment for analytical website Aktualniye Kommentarii, political scientist Igor Yurgens said that the current reshuffle is a reflection of the times. Risks are growing both inside and outside the country are growing and the president needs reliable people in key positions — such as that of governor of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave surrounded by NATO. The promotion of members of the security apparatus to more important government positions is expected to provide stability and maintain order. Yurgens predicts further changes in the senior ranks of the bureaucracy, possibly within the government or the presidential administration.

The business newspaper Vedomosti also highlights the promotion of security figures. The paper’s writers point out that the Kremlin’s main personnel reserve is the intelligence services, for whom managerial experience is not the key attribute when it comes to selection criteria. Experts interviewed by the newspaper emphasize that the tasks of the newly appointed officials are focused primarily on tightening control on the ground and ensuring the loyalty of regional elites.

Vedomosti also notes the importance of placing appointees from Moscow in traditionally pro-opposition regions like Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad in the run-up to the Duma elections, although such moves likely will be perceived with hostility, complicating the interaction between the regions and the center.

Fight against corruption continues 

Another high-ranking official has found himself in the center of a corruption scandal. Federal Customs Service head Andrei Belyaninov has been charged with embezzlement after the FSB and the Investigative Committee of Russia found 10 million rubles, $400,000 and 300,000 euros in his apartment. Belyaninov is suspected of having relations with an organization that smuggles alcohol into Russia. Belyaninov resigned after the search.

Slon sees the case as an indication that the role of the FSB has changed. According to the publication, the agency long ago moved beyond the scope of its formal role and activities and is now, in essence, the president’s personal “cleaning crew.” For the Russian elite, the case against Belyaninov sends a clear signal that there are no more “untouchables,” and any official runs the risk of falling out of favor, regardless of connections. Slon speculates that this reaction could have an unexpected effect – that the elite might start consolidating in opposition against the president.

Kirill Martynov, a political columnist for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes that the case against Belyaninov fits into the government’s new propaganda strategy. According to Martynov, the fight against corruption more closely resembles a reality show, where the lifestyles of corrupt officials are revealed, followed by searches and arrests. Martynov notes that in covering these cases, the media has come to the service of the government, helping authorities broadcast the message that no problem can be solved in Russia without the Kremlin.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a tabloid newspaper, also sees the narrowing of the “circle of the untouchables” in the Russian bureaucracy in the Belyaninov case. It attributes the increase in corruption cases to the FSB, which has declared war on many major corrupt officials. However, it is also likely that not all FSB officials are happy with this new focus since within the service itself, there are conflicts between the different departments, each of which is seeking to demonstrate its own effectiveness.

Russia heads to Rio

On July 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided not to disqualify the entire Russian Olympic Team over the recent doping scandals. The IOC effectively punted the case, however, saying that the final decision on competitors would be made by each sports federation. As a result of the move, the only groups definitely not going to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio are the Russian track and field athletes, weightlifters, and officials from the Ministry of Sports, whom the IOC has stripped of their accreditation.

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As the Russian Olympic team was sent off to Rio, Russian computer and TV screens were filled with scenes of storied pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva crying — Isinbayeva had expected to close out her long, storied career in Rio.

Novaya Gazeta sees little to celebrate in the IOC’s decision. While participation in the Olympics is, of course, important to Russia and Russian athletes, the paper points out that it does not resolve the skepticism about the country’s sports program in the international arena. Much long painstaking work lies ahead for Russia to restore the reputation of its athletes. Additionally, the country faces the humiliating and sad process of having its Olympics successes at the 2014 Games in Sochi discredited.

Vedomosti has tried to find some silver lining for Russian sport in the controversy, arguing that the costs associated with indiscriminate doping should encourage the authorities to crack down on the practice.

According to the publication, the IOC resolution is welcome as it once again demonstrated just how high the stakes are in big sports — not just because the country and its athletes risk disqualification and reputational damage, but also because “clean” athletes can easily put their career prospects above national interests by simply changing their citizenship. If this happens, Russia can easily lose many potential champions.

New Russian ambassador to Ukraine

Among the positions changing hands in the government reshuffle, the appointment of Mikhail Babich as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine is worth a special mention. Babich replaces Mikhail Zurabov, a businessman and a great friend of the country. Babich, who has served as the presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District since 2011, also has ties in the FSB, and the Russian press discussed extensively the possible consequences of another official from the security forces taking up such an important and sensitive position.

Experts asked to comment by online news publication speculated that Zurabov was considered an ineffective negotiator unable to balance the tensions between Moscow and Kiev. In addition, Zurabov was accused several times of being too sympathetic to the Ukrainian authorities and being on “good terms” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The experts told that Babich is a fundamentally different figure from Zurabov, a “hawk” who is being sent to conduct a much more rigid dialogue with Kiev.

The business newspaper Kommersant, in contrast, said that Zurabov played an important role as the only channel of communication between Putin and Poroshenko in recent years. According to Kommersant, Zurabov had been trying to step down for along time, but the Kremlin considered him too valuable for maintaining bilateral relations.

The paper speculated that the change of ambassador can be interpreted as a sign that the Kremlin will no longer rely on direct contacts with Kiev to resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, but will instead be betting exclusively on Western mediators.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii published an article by political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov on the topic, who pointed to Babich’s extensive experience in various fields, including defense and management. Nikonov wrote that today the post of ambassador to Ukraine is one of the most difficult in the Foreign Ministry and it demands a special figure, who is willing to play politics and not be too diplomatic.

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It is unlikely that the appointment will contribute to the restoration of full-fledged dialogue between the two countries, but observers can at least expect that attempts will be made to solve realistic problems, including within the framework of the Minsk Process.

Quotes of the Week:

Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who, as part of Russia’s banned track-and-field team, was not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in Rio, speaking during the sendoff of the Russian national team to Brazil: “Today they have banned us without any evidence, brazenly, rudely, and without giving any chance to prove our innocence and to fight for the right to participate in the Games.”

IOC president Thomas Bach on the IOC's decision not to disqualify the entire Russian Olympic Team over the recent doping scandals: "We have set the bar to the limit by establishing a number of very strict criteria which every Russian athlete will have to fulfil if he or she wants to participate in the Olympic Games Rio 2016. I think in this way, we have balanced on the one hand, the desire and need for collective responsibility versus the right to individual justice of every individual athlete."