Throughout the year, there were a number of high-profile moves within the Russian political elite. Here are the highlights (and lowlights) of 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to former Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Presidential Press Service / AP
2016 will be remembered as the year a power struggle took place within Russia's political elite. This resulted in new appointments, surprising resignations, reshuffles of key positions and roles, and new political messaging showing the authorities’ desire to crack down on political corruption.
Moves that impacted Putin’s inner circle - including a high-profile arrest - clearly showed that no one is invincible. That’s especially important to keep in mind as the presidential election campaign starts to gear up next year. With that in mind, here are some of the biggest political moves of the year that will almost certainly influence the political scene in 2017 and beyond.
Changes at the Central Electoral Commission
Ahead of the parliamentary elections in September, the Kremlin decided to remove the main irritant of Russian citizens who wanted fair elections: Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission. After all, Churov was closely associated with the electoral fraud of the 2011 Duma elections that led to street protests in Moscow.
On March 3, Ella Pamfilova, a politician known for her liberal views and then presidential ombudswoman for human rights, became the new head of the Central Electoral Commission. Electoral practices were expected to change as a result. All parties took notice of the change and praised Pamfilova for making candidate registration easier and more accessible. Most importantly, no one would be able to beat the system.
While Pamfilova declared the parliamentary elections to be successful, many long-time practices failed to change. For example, the local electoral commissions in some regions still needed to produce a certain result, or face consequences.
On Election Day (Sept. 18), the results of the voting were cancelled at eight polling stations. Several rank and file election officials in the regions lost their jobs. Overall, Pamfilova made an impression of a person who is sincerely trying to uproot fraud. The main problem, however, was the dramatically low turnout and the use of administrative pressure to make government employees vote in a certain way.
Women in power
Pamfilova was replaced as presidential human rights ombudswoman by another woman, Tatiana Moskalkova. This one-star police general left her seat in the State Duma, where she was a member of the center-left “Just Russia” faction. Human rights activists were concerned with the appointment, citing her lack of experience in the field and her support for some bills, such as the ban on foreign adoption in 2013. She also supported the bill on “foreign agents” that seriously complicated the work of NGOs in Russia.
Moskalkova did not resolve any high-profile problems. However, she was reported to be concerned with the plight of Russians arrested in Ukraine and met in person with Ildar Dadin – an opposition activist who complained about alleged torture in his prison colony.
Another female face in power was Anna Kuznetsova – the new ombudswoman for children’s rights. Kuznetsova replaced lawyer Pavel Astakhov, who shocked the public after children vacationing in a summer camp drowned during a boating trip on a lake. “So, how was your boating trip?” he asked the survivors at the time. Kuznetsova is an Orthodox priest’s wife, a mother of six, and the head of the Pokrov Foundation in the city of Penza, where she also headed the regional branch of the pro-Putin All-Russian People’s Front.
Her appointment was seen as another case of appointing an Orthodox Christian woman with socially conservative views to a prominent position. The first was Olga Vasilyeva, who shortly before that became the new education minister. Vasilyeva, a prominent historian of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th century, had previously worked in the Presidential Administration.
Her views on the role of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in re-establishing Russian state patriotism were widely debated on social networks and in the media. The new minister made a number of controversial statements. She promised to remove bureaucracy from schools and increase teacher salaries. The real picture, however, turned out to be different.
In December, she sent her proposals to cut expenditures in the federal program for the development of education. Total expenditures were cut by 20 percent, including cutting the cost of subsidies to the regions. All types of expenditures, including construction and maintenance of buildings, support for students with special needs, development of new university programs and many others were cut. Sources say teachers’ salaries may also be reduced: only 70 percent of salary will be guaranteed and the remaining 30 percent will be turned into optional bonuses.
In November, for the first time in post-Soviet Russian history, a federal minister was arrested. Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukaev was detained for allegedly receiving a $2 million dollar bribe for issuing a positive review of the Rosneft deal to buy state-owned shares of the Bashneft oil company.
Commentators have speculated that $2 million would be too little of a bribe for a deal of such scale and questioned why no video evidence was presented to the public. Uyukaev is under house arrest, while his former deputy Maksim Oreshkin was appointed to replace him as minister. He is now assigned to develop the plan for moving Russia out of its deep economic crisis.
A "show trial" arrest occurred when Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh was arrested in a restaurant literally red-handed. The last remaining liberal among the governors was arrested in Moscow on June 24 after receiving a $400,000 bribe. He made a plea of not guilty, but has been under arrest for half a year already. He says he was collecting money from businessmen for social needs in the region. As he explains it, ahead of the upcoming elections in September, people had to see some good deeds from the authorities. President Putin dismissed Belykh from his gubernatorial post.
In this story, there has also been quite a lot of public debate about what actually happened. In the released video, Belykh’s palms were covered with a luminescent substance. Which is strange, people say, because when one counts money, only the fingers are typically marked - not the whole hand.
Another anti-corruption "show" involved a search carried out in the house of the head of the Federal Customs Service Andrei Belianinov that featured gilded interiors, paintings and heaps of money in shoeboxes. The customs official got lucky: He remains at large and is only a witness in the criminal case. But the Federal Security Service (FSB) is investigating the origins of the money. Belianinov had to resign.
One reshuffle after another
Belianinov’s ouster launched a series of reshuffles. The customs chief was replaced by former presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District, Vladimir Bulavin. He, in turn, was replaced by the Kaliningrad Region Governor Nikolai Tsukanov. And the head of the local FSB branch in Kaliningrad, Yevgeny Zinichev, became acting governor.
Also read: "The Kremlin reshuffles the political deck"
On the same day, the Southern and Crimean Federal Districts were merged into one. Oleg Belaventsev, who previously headed the Crimean district, moved to the North Caucasus Federal Disitrict. From there, Sergei Melikov moved to the Russian National Guard, which is headed by the former deputy interior minister and President Vladimir Putin’s bodyguard Viktor Zolotov. Sevastopol Governor Sergei Menyailo became the head of the Siberian Federal District. The Ambassador to Ukraine and heads of several problem-ridden regions were dismissed. All in all, about a dozen heads of the regions were replaced, and none of them through elections.
In October, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was suddenly promoted to Deputy Prime Minister in charge of sports, tourism and youth policy. In the wake of the doping scandal, that was seen as a cover for putting a new person in charge of the Sports Ministry – the athlete Pavel Kolobov. But it was a challenge to the Western sporting bodies since nobody would be punished for the reported doping schemes.
Presidential Administration and State Duma
Perhaps the greatest personnel change of the year took place in the Presidential Administration. During the summer Sergei Ivanov, who was considered Putin’s close friend and the third most powerful person in the country, suddenly resigned and assumed a position that was created especially for him: special representative of the president for environmental protection, ecology and transportation.
It looked like a dignified retirement. But Ivanov remained active and even gave a long interview, in which he spoke on all the major problems of the country, thus hinting that he had not left the political realm. He is de facto supervising several ministries, including the transportation ministry.
A young deputy, Anton Vaino, replaced Ivanov. Putin’s desire to surround himself with a young cadre is perceived by the opposition as the president's fear of his own entourage.
Another major change took place after the Duma elections. Vyacheslav Volodin, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration in charge of domestic policy, left his post to become the speaker of the new Duma. Most analysts agreed that Volodin did not ask for this post: He personally turned the lower chamber of parliament into an easily manageable body lacking any initiative, pretty much a rubber stamp for any new legislation.
Once in the Duma, Volodin started to strengthen the legislative body. New procedures have been adopted that would punish deputies for any absence. Moreover, the government will have to report to respective committees on the implementation of laws.
Instead of Volodin, former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko came to run the domestic policy department of the Presidential Administration. In order to do so, he left the state nuclear corporation Rosatom. Experts described him as a business-savvy lobbyist with a liberal past. Kirienko does not interfere in the affairs of the Duma. Instead, he is reportedly concentrating on the upcoming presidential elections and affairs of the regions.
There will definitely be more reshuffles in the regions, especially since 2017 will be the year before presidential elections and thus a year when local government would need to be strengthened and economic problems would need to be fixed.