A FEEBLE REPLACEMENT

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The significance of Ustinov’s dismissal should not be exaggerated

The peculiarity of sudden dismissals in the Putin era is that they stun those whose job it is to comment on them. The comments we’re hearing about the dismissal of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov are either banal or extravagant.


The peculiarity of sudden dismissals in the Putin era is that they stun those whose job it is to comment on them. This is all the more strange, given that previous experience should have inured observers to such events: the Yeltsin era produced not merely dismissals, but complete shake-ups – yet observers still managed to comment on them, sometimes even convincingly.

This week, however, the comments we’re hearing about the dismissal of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov are either banal or extravagant.

The theory that Ustinov had formed an alliance with the ambitious Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov, with a view to 2008, has one weakness: it isn’t entirely clear what Ustinov could have promised Luzhkov. If rumors of Luzhkov’s ambitions are justified, then Luzhkov’s main problem in the lead-up to 2008 would be to avert any Prosecutor General’s Office investigations into the activities of his wife, a prominent entrepreneur. The Ustinov-Luzkhov alliance theory implies that Luzhkov got a “no prosecutions” guarantee from Ustinov. But the question is what such a guarantee would be worth. Ustinov wasn’t a Cardinal Richelieu who could provide Luzhkov’s wife with a written safeguard: “All that is done by the bearer is done on my orders and for the good of the state.” And if Ustinov did actually decide that he was a Cardinal Richelieu, then he must have been dismissed for delusions of grandeur, not for an alliance with Luzhkov.

The theory about Ustinov himself having ambitious plans sounds even more dubious. This theory has even seen the unexpected use of the word “charisma” to describe Ustinov. While our political culture does include a myth about chekists, it doesn’t have a myth about prosecutors, and Ustinov is most unlikely to start one.

It’s absolutely true that the Prosecutor General’s Office has faced strong criticism from all sides; from liberators and strong-state proponents alike. It’s also true that corruption continues to flourish, and that Ustinov might have made some wrong moves in his latest burst of corruption-fighting. It might also be true that Igor Sechin and Vladimir Ustinov got above themselves and had to be put in their place. But the drawback of such observations is that they’re too generalized; they don’t answer the question of why these well-known qualities led to this particular reaction (the sudden dismissal) at this particular time. The Prosecutor General’s Office was such an integral part of the mechanism of governance that on the one hand, Ustinov should never have been dismissed; on the other hand, the overall quality of the whole mechanism is such that Ustinov should have been dismissed immediately.

Speculations about the reasons behind the dismissal are really futile, since they can’t possibly answer the question of what the next prosecutor general should do in order to avoid a sudden dismissal. Perhaps he should have more respect for the law; perhaps he should have less. Perhaps he should fight corruption more; perhaps he should fight it less. Perhaps he should simply be in better health; Ustinov’s state of health isn’t all that good, and this might also have been the reason for his dismissal. In any event, it’s impossible to work out what the real reason was, or what others might learn from Ustinov’s example.

Most likely, the main point here is that we shouldn’t get carried away by assumptions that the suddenness of the dismissal implies any important changes or far-reaching plans. In February 2004, then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was dismissed just as suddenly; there was a lengthy delay before the appointment of a new prime minister, and we’ll never know the reasons for appointing a new Cabinet and prime minister then. After that feeble replacement of a prime minister, seeing the present replacement of a prosecutor general as highly significant means seeking far more sense in Kremlin politics than it actually contains.

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