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Purge and prejudice

by Mark Galeotti at 03/12/2012 20:45

Putin has reportedly told a closed meeting in the Kremlin that the recent spate of dismissals in the defense ministry are not part of a “campaign” within that institution. Maybe; but what about part of a wider anti-corruption campaign within the elite as a whole?

With so many recent cases being opened, it is clear that this is a new political development. It may be intended to cleanse the government; it is certainly intended to give that impression to the public.

It is questionable whether that will work in reframing the narrative about Putin, making him the stern tsar able to keep the pesky boyars in check. It is even more questionable whether it is actually a way to get things done. If anything, it may prove often the able and the outspoken who become targets, and policy takes second place to a dramatic headline.

Consider the military after the dismissal of minister Anatoly Serdyukov. In theory, of all institutions, this one ought to be in the ideal position. Putin wants a modernized military and is willing to spend a lot of money on this. Furthermore, in Sergei Shoigu he has appointed a capable and energetic new minister.

However, despite great efforts to show that he has hit the ground running, it will take some time for Shoigu to master his new brief. He holds the courtesy rank of general and now has taken to wearing the uniform, but he is not a soldier.

Shoigu may have to rebuild bridges with the military industrialists

© RIA Novosti. / Sergey Mamontov

Shoigu may have to rebuild bridges with the military industrialists

Meanwhile, he will have to rely on his new Chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Valery Gerasimov. His predecessor, Colonel General Makarov, had to go with his boss. Gerasimov is certainly a formidable character. His role in the arrest of Colonel Yury Budanov, who was convicted of kidnapping and raping a Chechen woman, shows that he is willing to take a controversial stand. However, he is no closet liberal but a career soldier who takes his profession seriously. Gerasimov has the toughness to fill Makarov’s role, but it remains to be seen whether he will be more concerned with championing the generals than controlling them. It is notable, after all, that Serdyukov’s habit of weeding out generals in the defense ministry and replacing them with civilians already seems to have been reversed.

Beyond that, Putin cannot simply target scapegoats (and even the genuinely guilty), he also needs to shore up sources of support and cultivate new favorites. This is generally dictated purely by political considerations.

For example, the defense industrialists and their patron, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, are in favor. The next stage of military reform depends not on raw military spending but making sure that the money is spent on the right things and not wasted. Indeed, one reason why Serdyukov fell was for picking a fight with the industry lobby and breaking the taboo on extensive foreign imports.

Putin appears to have told Shoigu to rebuild bridges with the industrialists, which in effect means accepting the weapons they want to build at the prices they want to charge. This is no recipe for successful and meaningful military reform.

There is no doubt that there is a need for a cleansing of the elite, for sackings and prosecutions, and for a wider campaign against the culture of impunity, indulgence and embezzlement.

However, there also needs to be consistent and sensible policy-making. What happens when long-term strategy clash with the political needs of the moment? Shoigu’s ability to move forward with military reform will tell us a great deal as to how far the anti-corruption campaign will actually impede rather than further sensible, longterm government. 

Mark Galeotti (Twitter: @markgaleotti) is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at http://inmoscowsshadows. wordpress.com. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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