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If the weeks of silence concerning appointments to the presidential administration following President Vladimir Putin’s re-inauguration back in May had led anyone to believe the president must be contemplating some difficult decisions, the new makeup of the administration must have come as something of a letdown. In the end, what surprised people was the lack of change: most key figures retained their positions, from Chief of Staff Anton Vaino and his deputies responsible for domestic policy, Sergei Kiriyenko, and TV, Alexei Gromov, to spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
Vladislav Surkov, the presidential aide responsible for Ukraine and Donbas, will also stay in place, despite earlier reports to the contrary. The presidential adviser on foreign policy, Yury Ushakov, isn’t going anywhere either, even though he is already seventy-one: a year older than the cutoff age for government service. Presidential administration officials enjoy incredible job security.
There were, however, several dismissals. The president’s controversial internet policy adviser German Klimenko, who proposed that users of the secure messaging app Telegram switch to the antiquated ICQ service when the state communications watchdog banned the former earlier this year, was one of those dismissed. Roskomnadzor, the communications watchdog, has long called the shots anyhow, and its head Alexander Zharov retained his position in the government. Klimenko only met with the president a handful of times during his tenure, and his position has now been eliminated. After all, the president often says that he doesn’t use the Internet all that much.
The two most established officials to lose their jobs were Yevgeny Shkolov and Vladimir Kozhin, whose dismissals had long been expected. Shkolov, who was responsible for personnel policy, worked with Putin back in East Germany in the 1980s, and joined the administration in 2012 after serving as the deputy interior minister. The presidential aide and his so-called Shkolov Group was oftern reported to wield enormous influence, though it was hard to pinpoint the limits of their sphere of influence. In 2014, a representative of the group—the head of the police anti-corruption department, General Denis Sugrobov—was arrested and later found guilty of abuse of office and organizing a criminal gang. This was a heavy blow to Shkolov, and rumors of his departure had circulated regularly since.
Vladimir Kozhin headed the presidential administrative directorate for almost fifteen years (2000–2014), and in recent years, he was a presidential aide on military and technological cooperation. But essentially, Kozhin had no specific responsibilities: the Defense Ministry had most of the powers in this area. He lost influence after being dismissed from the administrative directorate job, but was given small and temporary compensation, since no one goes from a top Kremlin job into oblivion.
Putin now has two new aides. They are former FSB officials Dmitry Shalkov and Anatoly Seryshev, whose CVs are somewhat sparse, as is to be expected with security service operatives. Such little-known security establishment figures have been appointed to the presidential administration before, like the current head of its administrative directorate, Alexander Kolpakov. Seryshev will replace Shkolov as the Kremlin’s chief personnel policy official, while Shalkov will replace Konstantin Chuichenko (Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s college classmate, who has moved up to become a deputy prime minister) as head of the presidential control directorate. Unlike their predecessors—who weren’t exactly the most public of figures either—the newcomers have no public profile at all.
The Kremlin’s political landscape is unchanged overall, which in itself is important. Together with the staffing policy in the regions and Cabinet appointments, stability in the presidential administration points to the borders of Putin’s possible experiments and the areas closest to him.
While the Kremlin is prepared to experiment with gubernatorial appointments (first it appoints young bureaucrats, then politicians, then security service veterans, then reshuffles them all), it isn’t so liberal when it comes to the Cabinet and administration. Of course, there could always be some new moves, like appointing the son of a Putin associate to a ministerial post, but the newcomers will always be overseen by Putin’s trusted personnel: deputy prime ministers Dmitry Kozak, Vitaly Mutko, Tatyana Golikova, and Alexei Gordeyev. Putin feels comfortable seeing familiar faces as deputy prime ministers, and that’s what he now sees.
Since the administration is the president’s closest circle, that’s where he strives for most comfort. Putin has always preferred to work with convenient and familiar people, but before they were rotated to different spheres. Igor Sechin used to work in the government but now heads the Rosneft oil giant, and Kozak has also changed jobs many times, to cite just the two most obvious examples. Now, Putin’s confidantes leave their positions less frequently, especially in the presidential administration, with which the president is constantly in touch. This means that the president now puts his convenience above all else, just as in other spheres: a particular surname is firmly associated with a respective sphere.
Many people get attached to old things, preferring predictability to novelty. It’s easy to anticipate the words and deeds of the new-old administration. We know what it will do, and shouldn’t expect any unpleasant surprises. As for pleasant surprises, no one of Putin’s age expects life to deliver too many of those.
The phrase “Putin’s stability” is now taking on a new meaning: it stands for tranquility, lack of external change, the same people in the same jobs. All of that is of primary importance to the president himself. Even the proposal to raise the retirement age submitted recently by the government is an idea the president has heard plenty of times.
To predict what the Kremlin will do, we need look no further than the ambitious but unrealized initiatives of the mid-2000s, such as enlarging the regions and tax reforms. The same is true of the Kremlin’s staffing policy: even if there are some reshuffles, the positions of power go to experienced and well-known individuals. Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin now heads the Audit Chamber, and the former ministers of agriculture and health, Gordeyev and Golikova, are now deputy prime ministers responsible for those areas. Putin is increasingly comfortable talking to familiar people on familiar subjects. His closest associates are well aware of this fact and have adjusted to their boss’s preferences.
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