Igor Ivanov and the role of the Security Council

Igor Ivanov, former foreign affairs minister and Security Council secretary, has never been a politician: he’s a career diplomat, so his loyalty to Yeltsin and Putin has never been questioned. Yet he also had a reputation for being able to defend his views and not being afraid to express them.

Igor Ivanov was never a member of what’s known as the Putin team: he is one of the last Yeltsin-era officials, and in that sense his departure is part of a sequence of resignations and dismissals, including Alexander Voloshin and Mikhail Kasyanov.

Back in the late 1990s, Ivanov was even Vladimir Putin’s rival, to some extent: in February 1999, then-President Boris Yeltsin offered him the post of prime minister, replacing Yevgeny Primakov. The Kremlin faced two serious problems at the time: first, finding a replacement for Nikolai Bordyuzha, Kremlin chief-of-staff and Security Council secretary, who refused to support the Kremlin’s battle with then-Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov; and second, finding a prime minister who would be capable of replacing Yeltsin as president. Several contenders were discussed: Sergei Stepashin, Nikolai Aksenenko, Vladimir Putin, and Igor Ivanov. But Ivanov turned down the tempting offer – telling Yeltsin that he could not and would not oppose Primakov, his long-time colleague at the Foreign Ministry.

Actually, Ivanov has never been a politician: he’s a career diplomat, so his loyalty to Yeltsin and Putin has never been questioned. Yet he also had a reputation for being able to defend his views and not being afraid to express them. When the Americans bombed Yugoslavia, Ivanov spoke out strongly against this, and Yeltsin rebuked him in public, saying he should express himself in milder terms. “I can’t put it more mildly, Mr. President – that would be wrong,” Ivanov replied.

As secretary of the Security Council – a body headed by the president – Ivanov has never made public appearances; but the Security Council is known to have produced analytical briefs pointing out the negative consequences of deteriorating relations between Russia and other CIS countries – the possibility of losing Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. Ivanov has also been a tacit negotiator with Iran.

Contrary to any rumors or mud-slinging, Ivanov’s resignation really was his own idea. He made the request in February 2007, and Putin gave him the same answer he has given many other officials: “I will tell you when you may leave. Don’t worry.” Ivanov was asked to wait – and now the time has come.

Why now? Because we’re moving into the finishing straight. Foreign policy is moving into the background, and Operation Successor is the main focus. Putin needs the office of Security Council secretary as a “spare chair” that enables him to reshuffle his team, not promoting or demoting anyone, just moving them horizontally. Putin is probably grateful to Ivanov for such a timely departure. Now he can start moving Naryshkin, Chemezov, Sergei Ivanov, and so on – with more to follow.

The post of Security Council secretary is a plum job, in the sense that whoever holds it has quite a lot of influence – but in contrast to a minister or prime minister, he isn’t actually held accountable for anything. He’ll never be blamed for abuse of new conscripts in the military, or failed national projects, or the rising price of bread. Consequently, this office makes an excellent starting position for Putin’s potential successor.

The present-day Security Council is like a mini-Politburo, meeting every Saturday at President Putin’s Novo-Ogarevo residence to discuss (as the Kremlin press service puts it) “certain issues in foreign and domestic policy.” The Soviet Politburo used to meet on Thursdays, and the Pravda newspaper would report the following day that “certain issues” had been discussed – that is, the most important and vital questions in both domestic politics and foreign affairs.

In contrast to the US National Security Council, the Russian Security Council has no officially-specified functions; de jure, it’s just an advisory body. But those Saturday meetings at the president’s residence (secret, no minutes released) are attended by its permanent members: the FSB director, the interior minister, the finance minister, the emergencies minister, and all seven presidential envoys (although the envoys don’t attend all weekly meetings). Obviously, these top-ranking officials don’t confine their discussions to security matters and counter-terrorism. For example, one of those Saturday meetings produced the decision that Russia would not ratify Protocol 14 for the European Court of Human Rights – since a number of key Security Council members spoke against it, including FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev. The Security Council has also considered measures to avert an AIDS epidemic; Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov presented a report on this. According to former presidential advisor Andrei Illarionov, the Rosneft IPO decision was also made at a Security Council meeting.

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