Putin’s friends – and the friends of friends

Recent dismissals and appointments at the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service, and Gazprom may seem like just a changing of the guard, until we consider which Kremlin factions support the people being appointed or dismissed.

Recent dismissals and appointments at the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Gazprom may seem like just a changing of the guard, until we consider which Kremlin factions support the people being appointed or dismissed. It might seem that this field has long been cleared of anyone other than President Vladimir Putin’s friends from his days in St. Petersburg and East Germany, his former co-workers, or even his dacha neighbors. But there’s the problem: Putin has been a very sociable person. He has many acquaintances who can’t stand each other. After being appointed to key state posts or executive roles at state-controlled companies, these friends have recruited their own friends. And it’s turned out that “friends of friends” can’t always find a common language. On the contrary, they take every opportunity to draw close to the president’s ear and vilify each other. The chief players are those who have direct access to the president’s ear: that is, those who can be the first to report some “news” about rival friends. This warm, friendly atmosphere of devouring each other should be regarded as the backdrop for all the recent appointments, dismissals, and reshuffles.

Last week saw the dismissal of Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov, who headed the Crime Police. Novikov’s rise to this height was just as rapid as his fall. In 2001, he was promoted from police chief of the Krasnogvardeisk district in St. Petersburg to charge d’affaires at the federal Interior Ministry. Such a meteoric rise was unprecedented in the Interior Ministry’s history. The experts we approached for comments say that Novikov was supported by Yevgeny Murov, head of the Federal Guards Service, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the Presidential Security Service – two key players with direct access to Putin. Novikov was able to communicate with the presidential administration directly, bypassing his official superior, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. Novikov is described as being a highly-skilled individual.

It’s interesting to note that another person was promoted within the Interior Ministry almost simultaneously with Novikov: Vagif Ismailov, the nephew of Telman Ismailov, president of the AST Group (until recently, this company owned the Cherkizovo and Varshava produce markets in Moscow). Ismailov worked with Novikov at the Interior Ministry directorate for the North-Western district of Moscow; when Novikov became a deputy interior minister, Ismailov moved to the Interior Ministry’s central staff.

Many assumed that with the backing of the Federal Guards Service and the Presidential Security Service, Novikov could aspire to the office of interior minister. Instead, he has been dismissed. But this hasn’t made Nurgaliyev’s position any stronger. Novikov’s replacement, Oleg Safonov – a former KGB officer – used to be one of Putin’s co-workers at the St. Petersburg municipal government’s Foreign Relations Committee. Putin has chosen to appoint someone he knows personally, not just through his security guards, as a deputy interior minister and potential minister.

Sergei Meshcheryakov, head of the Economic Security Department, was long considered an opponent of Novikov. Nurgaliyev tried several times to reconcile the two, calling them into his office and making them shake hands – but their relationship remained as bad as ever. Novikov was linked to the Federal Guards Service and the Presidential Security Service; Meshcheryakov associated directly with Igor Sechin – deputy head of the presidential administration, presidential aide, and an old friend of Putin. It was announced last week that Meshcheryakov has been transferred from the Economic Security Department to head the Department for Countering Organized Crime and Terrorism. Interior Ministry personnel say jokingly: “His salary remains the same, but his income will decrease.” More seriously, this looks like another of Putin’s moves to balance the influence of different factions. Sechin has not retained control of the Economic Security Department, an important resource. Its new chief is Yevgeny Shkolov, a former intelligence officer who served in East Germany with Putin and Viktor Ivanov, deputy head of the presidential administration.

Neither is there unity behind the thick walls of the FSB. It has recently lost three people: Sergei Shishin, head of the FSB Logistics Service; Sergei Fomenko, deputy head of the Economic Security Service and head of the K Directorate (counter-smuggling); and former FSB Deputy Director Vladimir Anisimov, who remained in the active reserve, working at the Federal Technical and Export Control Service.

These high-level dismissals aren’t all the same. Anisimov and Shishin were from FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev’s camp (Anisimov started out as an ensign at the state security commandant’s office in Karelia, headed by Patrushev at the time); Fomenko was a deputy to Alexander Bortnikov, deputy FSB director and head of the Economic Security Service. According to our sources, Bortnikov has direct access to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, regarded as a potential successor to President Putin.

According to the experts we approached for comments, Patrushev has recently managed to find a common language with Sechin, following a number of misunderstandings.

Medvedev and Sechin are antagonists within the Kremlin, although they are equally close to Putin. According to our sources, their differences have grown more acute recently: Medvedev reported to Putin that Andrei Sayenko, a leading figure in the notorious Tri Kita (Three Whales) furniture-smuggling case, allegedly met with Sechin shortly before being arrested. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course; Sayenko was the deputy director of a Rosoboroneksport (Russian Defense Exports) subsidiary, and is described as someone who came up with many bold ideas for improving the Customs Service. But after Putin personally revived the Tri Kita case, the report about the alleged long-ago meeting between Sayenko and Sechin certainly made an impact.

In the lead-up to the appointment of Putin’s successor, it’s vital for the security and law enforcement top brass (like all other state officials with any political weight) to avoid mistakes in choosing their alliances. They can’t sit on the fence either. That’s why heads are rolling – or growing; that’s why alliances are falling apart and forming frantically. It’s an impressive process of natural selection. They have exactly a year to play Russian roulette and work out whose hand is the right one to kiss.

P.S. Gazprom is a different domain – not one of the security and law enforcement agencies, but also a resource that requires continual oversight from the president. Alexander Ryazanov has just been replaced as deputy chief executive by Valery Golubev – former head of the Vasiliev Island district in St. Petersburg, who remembers being in power there when an apartment was allocated to Vladimir Putin.