The last few weeks have not been too successful for Vladimir Putin’s public image. In October, Reuters reported that the Russian president has serious health problems, which forced him to cancel a number of foreign trips. Around the same time, a poll by the Levada Center showed that only 34 percent of Russians want Putin to remain in power for another term. Perhaps for both reasons, the Kremlin decided to cancel Putin’s “direct line with the people”—the traditional television question-and-answer session that he has held every year for the past decade.
Attempting to regain the initiative, the administration announced that Putin has begun working on his state-of-the-nation address, which will be read to Parliament before the end of the year. Kremlin sources are suggesting that the speech will mark “a sharp turn in the political course of Vladimir Putin, both in domestic and in foreign policy.” Neither the details, nor the direction of this “turn” have been specified, but the sources mentioned the possibility of “a serious personnel cleansing.”
Days after this leak, Putin abruptly fired his long-time defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, citing an ongoing investigation into corruption at the ministry. If graft were a reason for dismissing officials, there would be almost no one left in the Russian government, so analysts began discussing Putin’s real motivations, ranging from Serdyukov’s rift with military officers to a falling-out with his father-in-law, Gazprom chairman and Putin confidant Viktor Zubkov.
Much more significant is the name of Serdyukov’s replacement: the new defense minister is Sergei Shoigu, until now the (appointed) governor of the Moscow region who had served as minister for emergency situations under every Russian premier from Yegor Gaidar to Dmitri Medvedev. In 1999, Shoigu, one of the few genuinely popular government officials, helped Putin take control of Parliament by heading the electoral list of the pro-Kremlin Unity party (now known as United Russia). Today, in the words of noted political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, Shoigu remains “the only person in the ‘elite’ who could still, relatively honestly and without monstrous fraud, be sold to the people in an early presidential election.” Putin’s only demands, Piontkovsky asserts, would be a safe passage out of the country, and guarantees against future extradition requests.
Whether this particular theory proves true or not, the chances are good that the Kremlin’s coming “turn” will be well worth watching.
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