Due West: Putin’s Revolutionary Message to Russia’s Ruling Elite

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
One more official from the former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s team has been arrested in connection with the ongoing investigation into corruption in the ministry.

One more official from the former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s team has been arrested in connection with the ongoing investigation into corruption in the ministry.

The new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu keeps on demolishing Serdyukov’s legacy. This week he cancelled the military education and training reform introduced by his disgraced predecessor, and fired the head of the relevant department in the ministry, a Serdyukov appointee.

The former defense tsar himself has been called in by investigators to comment on the allegations of widespread corruption and theft during his tenure. Serdyukov’s story is a constant source of breaking news for journalists. Most observers in Moscow expect him to be charged any minute now.

The ex-defense minister’s saga has an aura of mystery around it. All sorts of unseemly things were allegedly going on in the ministry on his watch – former army property was sold at knockdown prices to friendly businesses, army procurement contracts were awarded to companies owned by relatives, the budget was regularly plundered. Few in Moscow believe it happened otherwise.

However, it was all pretty normal within the confines of the present-day political system, which rewards loyalty with impunity.

When Anatoly Serdyukov was first appointed as minister in 2007 by then-President Vladimir Putin, his task was to reform the armed forces by downsizing them and making the use of budgetary money more efficient. This task was made even more urgent after the Russian-Georgian war in August of 2008. Despite the Russians’ victory, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were unpleasantly surprised by the chaos, inefficiency and lack of modern equipment in the Russian army, especially in comparison with the Georgians, trained by the United States and Turkey. 

To achieve these goals, the new defense chief had to bring in outsiders who would be able to overcome the corporate resistance to change in the army’s top brass. This Serdyukov did by inviting his former business acquaintances, as well as taxmen (and women) who served under him when he was head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, the equivalent of the US Internal Revenue Service. The unwritten rule of the game in Russia’s bureaucratic system is that in exchange for executing the task, the new team would have a bit of room to maneuver with properties and money at its disposal (the Defense Ministry being a particularly spacious field in this regard). Serdyukov himself never aspired to anything but being President Putin’s faithful servant and granting the Kremlin’s wishes. Moreover, independent experts saw his reforms as crude but long overdue, and ultimately beneficial for the Russian armed forces.

It is also inconceivable that the goings on in the ministry were unknown to the country’s leadership at any given moment. Russian internal security service has a special department monitoring everything that happens in the armed forces.

Hence the question: why were Serdyukov and his team of men and women (including his mistress) singled out for reprisals? There is a theory that the former minister fell out with important figures in the government, his own generals and even the Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov.

But even then, a quiet resignation and a cushy job at some other state body would have solved the problem. Was it the scale of corruption in the ministry? Well, the Kremlin seemed to have put up with it for a long time, as it does with scores of other state institutions. Was it the fact that Serdyukov left his wife, the daughter of the former Prime Minister and Putin’s close friend Victor Zubkov? Again, why start all the muckraking? A resignation would have been more than enough.

The explanation that is gaining certain credibility among observers in Russia is that this time, Putin is serious about tackling the corruption problem. Thus he decided to start with someone from his inner circle – to demonstrate his resolve and firmness.

The president, the explanation goes, realized that corruption is chipping away at state institutions with such speed and on such a scale that it has become a threat to his own rule. And to Russia, I would add. If this is indeed so, by picking Serdyukov for exemplary punishment Putin also chose a revolutionary strategy, and ultimately – instability, because undoing the “corruption for loyalty” scheme means undermining the position of Russia’s ruling class as a whole.

Crushing Serdyukov’s team and its legacy sends a troubling signal to Russia’s ruling elite: loyalty is no longer valued and counts for nothing. This is, in fact, a revolutionary message, which may well have a major impact on Russia’s disoriented elite – and in more ways than one.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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