Russia’s lightweight government

The last few months saw speculation of two possible behavioural models for Putin. The usual wishful thinkers were hoping for a Putin 2.0 (or maybe 3.0 or even 4.0) who was supposed to have got the message of the street protests and was supposed to engage in (swiping) reforms to modernise Russia and gradually and slowly liberalize the political system to let some steam off. The alternative camp of usual alarmists were saying that Putin will return with even stronger determination to tighten the screws and things will be much worse in terms of repression before they get better. And both camps waited for the new government to get a sense of what will come next. With the government announced here are a few things to note:

1. On the surface three fourths of the government were changed, but the changes were rather (and unsurprisingly) conservative. The composition of the new government suggest neither a strong reformist push, nor a centralising backlash, but rather more of the same. Especially given that several key former ministers just joined Putin in the Presidential Administration as his advisors, but are likely to exercise more influence over specific policies than many of the new ministers.

2. Overall the government looks unexpectedly ‘Medvedievist’ – in the sense of having a good presence of soit-disant ‘liberals’. Igor Shuvalov, first deputy prime minister and one of the vocal proponents of modernisation in recent years, stayed on despite the recent exposure of some questionable financial transactions. Arkady Dvorkovich, ex-advisor to President Medvedev and another modernisation advocate was also appointed deputy prime-minister. Igor Sechin, ex-deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector and the erstwhile silovik tsar who has the image of the dark cardinal behind the throne, is out. He moved (back) to the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. There is also talk that with his departure will mean that the running of the energy-related matters is taken out of the government.

3. Some of the core ministers from the previous government stayed on. This is the case of both foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Anton Siluanov, the Finance Minister. But that was not difficult to predict. Another key minister, who was on much shakier ground, Anatoly Serdyukov, the defence minister, also stayed on. He is a former businessman (manager of a furniture shop) who ruthlessly tries to reform the Defence ministry behemoth and hence is in open conflict with most of the military, and a wide range of vested interests in the military-industrial complex. The signal is that reform will be continued, and many Russian analysts say that the military is almost the only sector in Russia which is truly modernising. It is also indicative that Dmitry Rogozin (whose Moldova portfolio as discussed in this previous post), deputy prime minister in charge of the military industrial complex was rumoured a month or so ago to take over the defence ministry, but in the end this did not happen.

4. There also are some surprises. For better or worse. Vladimir Medinsky – a Putin apologist who spent the last few years denouncing traitors right and left and defending with a lot of fervour the current system – was appointed minister of culture. As if to balance that, 29-years old Nikolai Nikiforov was appointed minister for communications, much to the delight of some prominent Russian bloggers. Previously he worked as minister for communications in the region of Tatarstan where he made a reputation for developing a rather well functioning e-governance system.

The composition of the new government is neither suggesting a Putin 2.0 nor a strong tilt towards greater repression. But its balance is slightly inclined towards what in the Russian political system are called ‘liberals’. However, the truth is that most of the key decisions will not be taken in the government anyway, but in Putin’s ‘presidential administration’. And for all the reading into this or that appointment, the government will primarily be a lightweight structure primarily working under the shadow of the real government in the Kremlin.