Putin’s Pre-Election Shuffle Tightens Security Grip on Regions

  • President replaces governors, envoys in eight regions
  • Security officials handed key roles in regional appointments

President Vladimir Putin placed security officials in key positions as he carried out the largest shuffle of regional governors and envoys this year, less than two months before Russians vote in parliamentary elections amid the longest economic recession in nearly 20 years.

Putin on Thursday replaced presidential envoys overseeing the annexed peninsula of Crimea and the North-Western, Siberian and North Caucasus federal districts, as well as the governors of Kaliningrad, Yaroslavl and Kirov regions. He stripped Crimea of its federal district status, merging it into Russia’s Southern federal district along with Sevastopol, whose top official was also changed.

Deputy Interior Minister Dmitry Mironov, who served in Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, and the Federal Guard Service, was moved to be acting governor of Yaroslavl. Yevgeny Zinichev, another former FSB officer, was placed in charge of Kaliningrad, while Igor Vasiliev, who served in the Soviet-era KGB in Putin’s home city of St. Petersburg, was appointed in Kirov, replacing Nikita Belykh who’s in detention after being accused last month of accepting a bribe.

The wide-ranging shuffle took place shortly before campaigning starts for September’s parliamentary elections, where the pro-Kremlin United Russia party is defending a majority gained after 2011 polls that prompted the biggest anti-Putin protests in his more than 16 years in power. The vote’s being held as the world’s largest energy exporter is mired in its second year of recession, the longest since the mid-1990s, after the ruble lost half its value following the slump in oil prices, plunging millions of Russians into poverty as incomes tumbled. While Putin retains very high personal approval ratings, United Russia is far less popular among voters.

Security Bet

“This is a dangerous scenario,” Alexander Kynev, a specialist on regional politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said by phone. “This is a demonstration that Putin’s betting on the security forces in politics, which may be seen as a very bad sign” for society and the business climate, he said.

The new officials have management experience and Putin appointed them because he believes “exactly these people have the required potential to develop these regions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday. It’s “a normal cyclical rotation” to improve the situation in regions “where we wish to have a better pace of growth,” he said.

The appointments of the security officials as regional chiefs follow Putin’s decision to name Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Dyumin, his former bodyguard, as acting governor of the Tula region in February.

Putin likely carried out the reshuffle not because he’s afraid of election protests but because “for authoritarian regimes, this is a quite traditional tool to control the balance within the elite,” Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center polling company, said by phone. “Trust in the secret services is significantly increasing and society won’t be scared of having more law enforcers in power.”

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