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Russia: Putin reshuffles inner circle again, older hands lose to younger aides

Russian president Vladimir Putin has reshuffled his inner-circle again, giving the parliament speaker’s job to his chief domestic strategist.

world Updated: Sep 24, 2016 00:03 IST
Russia,Vladimir Putin,September 18 vote in Russia
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with Vyacheslav Volodin, during a meeting in May 2011. Putin nominated Volodin as the State Duma's speaker on September 23, 2016. (AP)

Russian president Vladimir Putin has reshuffled his inner-circle again, giving the parliament speaker’s job to his chief domestic strategist, a man who oversaw a vote that further strengthened the dominance of the main Kremlin party.

Friday’s move is the latest twist in a wider Kremlin shake-up that has seen many old-time Putin allies lose their positions to younger, lower-profile aides.

Vyacheslav Volodin, whom Putin nominated as the new speaker of the State Duma, oversaw this month’s parliamentary election in which the main party supporting Putin tightened its grip on the lower house. Volodin replaces Sergei Naryshkin, whom Putin on Thursday appointed as the new chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR.

Read | Putin’s party dominates Russia vote with 44.5 %, shows exit poll

While Volodin has largely stayed in the shadows, he is considered one of Russia’s most influential officials, a puppet master who has directed the parliament’s work and engineered elections. He was also widely seen as a driving force behind a string of draconian laws in response to massive anti-Putin protests in 2011-2012.

The 52-year-old has become known for his statement “there is no Russia without Putin.”

The reshuffling marks a clear step down for the 61-year-old Naryshkin. The SVR is considered far less influential than another KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Service, known under its Russian acronym FSB, which focuses on domestic security issues like fighting terrorism, catching foreign spies and uncovering economic crimes.

Under Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran who served as FSB director in the late 1990s before ascending to the presidency, the agency has become increasingly powerful. Russian media speculated that the FSB is currently pushing to swallow several other agencies, including the SVR and the nation’s top investigative body, the Investigative Committee.

If such a move happens, it would resurrect the old structure of the KGB, which was split into separate agencies after the 1991 Soviet collapse as Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, sought to limit its clout.

Naryshkin reportedly has known the 63-year-old Putin since the late 1970s, when both were students in the KGB academy, but it’s unclear if he wields sufficient influence to fight the FSB’s onslaught and preserve the SVR’s independence.

Many other long-time Putin confidants recently lost their jobs.

Many observers see the changes as a reflection of Putin’s increasing weariness with the old guard and his desire to encircle himself with younger aides who fully owe their ascent to him.

Read | Putin firms control with big win for Russia’s ruling party, voter turnout drops

This month’s parliamentary election on September 18 was generally seen as cleaner than the 2011 vote. Still, reports of alleged violations came from around the country on election day, including charges of ballot-box stuffing and “carousel voting,” in which people are transported to several locations to cast multiple ballots.

Turnout was distinctly lower this time, less than 48 percent nationwide compared with 60 percent in 2011, reflecting broad apathy and dismay with the political process in Russia.

The vote gave United Russia, the main party supporting Putin, 343 seats in the 450-seat lower house, a gain of more than 100 seats that raises it far above the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution on its own.

Three other parties that had largely complied with the Kremlin’s wishes saw their presence shrink: The Communists won 42 seats in the new Duma, a sharp drop from 92, the nationalist Liberal Democrats got 39 and the socialist Just Russia 23 seats.

While the three parties posture as the opposition, their fealty to the Kremlin was at full display Friday when Putin met with parliament leaders. They all enthusiastically supported Volodin’s candidacy and were openly lobbying Putin to let them to keep the committees they led in the old parliament.

The Duma will vote to appoint Volodin the speaker when it meets next month.

While the speaker’s job is nominally considered the fourth most senior position in the Russian officialdom — following the posts of the president, the prime minister and the upper house speaker — its holders have wielded little influence compared to Kremlin and Cabinet officials.

First Published: Sep 23, 2016 23:13 IST