Six theories about Putin’s surprise: the appointment of Sergei Sobyanin

Sergei Sobyanin, governor of the Tyumen region since 2001, has just been transferred to Moscow to head the Kremlin administration. This may be considered an extraordinary appointment. At least six theories are already circulating about the motives behind President Putin’s decision.

Why Sobyanin? The head of the Kremlin administration is frequently more important than the prime minister; so why bring in someone from the Tyumen region to fill this office?

Of course, Sergei Semyonovich Sobyanin cannot be described as a novice in the federal halls of power. During Yeltsin’s second term, he was the speaker of the Khanty-Mansiisk regional legislature and one of the most prominent federal senators. In 2001, President Putin gave Sobyanin his blessing to be elected as governor of the Tyumen region. After playing an active role in the local government reform commission chaired by Dmitri Kozak, Sobyanin gained a reputation as one of Putin’s favorite regional leaders. Rumors would surface periodically in Moscow about his imminent appointment as justice minister, prosecutor general, or presidential envoy.

Despite all this, however, Sobyanin’s move to the Kremlin may be considered an extraordinary event. For some mysterious reason, a key post on Putin’s staff will be filled by someone who is not a member of Putin’s inner circle.

As Putin’s fifth year in power draws to a close, all the senior members of his St. Petersburg team are at odds with each other. Note the mutual dislike between newly-appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Igor Sechin, head of the presidential secretariat. Sechin doesn’t get along any better with Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev. Finally, just about all the St. Petersburg people in the Kremlin have turned against Dmitri Kozak, presidential envoy for the Southern federal district. Under the circumstances, appointing a person from any of the rival clans as Kremlin chief-of-staff would have thoroughly disrupted the system of checks and balances.

Bringing in Sobyanin will make it possible to avoid all this. The former Tyumen governor is considered to be pointedly neutral. He has managed to maintain calm relations all along with Medvedev, Sechin, and Vladislav Surkov.

Some heads of the Kremlin administration have been very influential. Alexander Voloshin was actually Russia’s second most powerful state official, for a while. Valentin Yumashev was the arbiter for all conflicts within the oligarchic elite. But there are also examples to the contrary. By the end of their periods in charge of the presidential administration, Yuri Petrov and Sergei Filatov weren’t influential at all. Nikolai Yegorov was a second-rank figure throughout his time in the Kremlin. In short, the job of Kremlin chief-of-staff in itself is no guarantee of anything.

Perhaps the plan is for Sobyanin to be a weak head of the administration, right from the start – if Putin considers it important for all the most significant decisions to be made in the Cabinet at this time. That might be why the new appointee is not a person from St. Petersburg, has no team of his own, and has no chance of forming a team rapidly.

That’s it; the succession to Russia’s throne is no longer an open question. Either Medvedev or Ivanov will be the next president. This is what some analysts have concluded in the wake of the latest reshuffles. Yet it’s hard to believe in this outcome. By becoming successor-candidates, the two new deputy prime ministers have made a great many enemies. From now on, everyone will be trying to trip them up. The two-and-a-half years until the next presidential election is more than enough time to destroy any politician. What’s more, Putin is known for not liking to place his political cards on the table any earlier than necessary. Thus, the entire political construct announced this week might be temporary. After a certain period of time, both Medvedev and Sobyanin will make way for entirely different people.

This fairly straightforward maneuver has long been used in the bureaucracy: if you want any particular important job to fall vacant, ensure a promotion for its current holder. Many observers believe, for example, that Sergei Stepashin was promoted from interior minister to prime minister in 1999 precisely in order to free up the office of interior minister for the Yeltsin Family’s favorite, Viktor Rushailo.

The office of Tyumen region governor is one of the most important in Russia. This region has vast oil reserves. So, despite his liking for Sobyanin, Putin may have decided to replace him as Tyumen governor.

This theory will be confirmed or disproved fairly soon; everything will become clear as soon as the name of Putin’s candidate for Tyumen governor is announced.

Merging regions is one of the Kremlin’s favorite political projects. In the Tyumen region, however, Putin’s ambitious plan has run into a substantial obstacle. Most of Tyumen’s petroleum wealth is concentrated on the territory of the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district; and the Khanty-Mansiisk political elite, headed by Governor Filppenko, flatly refused to accept the merger. In order to overcome the Khanty-Mansiisk faction’s resistance, its protege, Sobyanin, was made governor of Tyumen in 2001. But that still wasn’t enough for the Khanty-Mansiisk elites. Sobyanin’s new job guarantees that he will be the official in charge of Tyumen unification at the very highest level, so he can look after the interests of all his old friends.

Gazprom’s acquisition of the Sibneft oil company from Roman Abramovich has infuriated many liberal observers. They point out that Abramovich bought Sibneft from the state at a fraction of its value in the 1990s, but now the state is paying full price to buy it back from him. Still, there is also a positive side to relieving the old courtier-oligarchs of their property. It may be viewed as a sign that there really will be a change of administration in 2008. If that’s the case, however, Abramovich is by no means the only oligarch who needs to get rid of his assets in the lead-up to a changing of the guard in the Kremlin. The same would have to be done by Vladimir Bogdanov, head of Surgutneftegaz, and certain other people. It’s common knowledge that Sobyanin and Bogdanov are on friendly terms. Thus, one of the new Kremlin chief-of-staff’s main tasks could be to organize another round of nationalization in the oil sector.

A few background details about Sobyanin

The ethnic issue: On the former Tyumen governor’s website, he is described as “a native son of Russia’s North, in the third generation.” His ancestor was a Cossack from the Urals who ended up in the Berezovo locality: the village of Nyaksimvol, Berezovo locality, Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district. That’s an ethnic Mansii village. Thus, during the Tyumen region’s gubernatorial election campaign in January 2001, reports arose that Sobyanin was an ethnic Mansii. A few Mansii history websites even placed Sobyanin on their lists of prominent Mansii individuals. However, in the biographical statement he submitted to the electoral commission, Sobyanin described himself as an ethnic Russian.

Friendship with Abramovich: Sobyanin is on excellent terms with Roman Abramovich, who once helped him get elected as speaker of the Khanty-Mansiisk legislature. Sibneft (along with Surgutneftegaz) supported Sobyanin in the Tyumen gubernatorial campaign of 2001.

Tyumen-style diplomacy: Sobyanin was supported in the gubernatorial election by both Alexander Filipenko and Yuri Neelov, the governors of both autonomous districts that are part of the Tyumen region. They hoped that Sobyanin wouldn’t insist on merging the districts with the region. But Sobyanin soon forgot the interests of his patrons. In 2003, he joined the commission chaired by Dmitri Kozak and worked on amendments that made the autonomous districts financially dependent on the Tyumen region.

As governor, Sobyanin made this memorable statement: “I don’t think that a journalist can be free, by definition, and the press in Russia cannot be free.”

Sergei Sobyanin was the first regional leader to join the United Russia party.