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Russia: The Kremlin Is Entrenching Itself - by Maxim Trudolyubov

Traditional opposition in Russia, negligibly small and weak, is no longer a target of the Kremlin’s designs. Putin is now dealing with challenges that are invisible to the naked eye. The year 2017 will mark the centennial of the Russian Revolution; an occasion too symbolic to ignore. The year 2018 will see presidential elections, and Putin will announce whether or not he will try to remain in the Kremlin for yet another term.

Two major political projects, both launched in April and both involving men close to Vladimir Putin, may help us understand the Kremlin’s thinking about its future. One project has to do with domestic security; the other is about strategic policy planning. Both were long in the making and are the Kremlin’s responses to mounting economic and political pressures.

The first project is Putin’s decision, announced in early April, to create a new security agency, the National Guard of Russia. Putin chose Viktor Zolotov, the long-time head of the president’s personal security unit who served as Commander of the Russian Interior Troops for the past two years, to lead the new force.

The Interior Troops, Interior Aviation, OMON (riot police), SOBR (the Russian equivalent of SWAT force), a security corporation formerly run by the Interior Ministry, the weapons licensing department of the Interior Ministry – all of these structures, numbering up to 400,000 members (roughly 200,000 of them professional military service personnel) have now become part of the National Guard remit.

The bodyguard-in-chief, Zolotov, has thus been elevated to a Security Tsar of Russia. All weapon-wielding forces, with the exception of the Federal Guard Service tasked with protecting top officials, and FSB’s small special forces, will now report to Zolotov, who will in turn report directly to Putin. Through the weapon licensing service he will also have effective control over all private military and security firms in Russia.

A new “corps of gendarmes” is being created at the expense of the Interior Ministry. Two former security agencies, a drug enforcement administration and an immigration agency are being cut in size and put under the command of the Interior Minister. Grom, a special force for anti-drug special operations, will also likely move from the Interior to the National Guard. The Special Corps of Gendarmes security police that existed in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, may be seen as a precursor to the newly created force.

It also may be compared to the French gendarmerie or the Italian carabinieri rather than the U.S. National Guard, which is a reserve military force. No visible domestic threats seem to warrant such a massive security centralization in Russia.

The second telling decision is that of giving Alexei Kudrin, who served as Finance Minister for 11 years and was also the first Deputy Prime Minister, a leading role in the drafting of a future reform program. Just like Zolotov, Kudrin worked with Putin for a long time. Both Kudrin and Putin moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1996 at the invitation of Anatoly Chubais, then Boris Yeltsin’s chief of staff. Kudrin will now chair the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank once close to the Kremlin.

Kudrin is treading carefully. He advocates institutional reform, placing judiciary and law enforcement reforms at the forefront of his agenda, but stops short of calling the current system accountable for mismanagement and corruption. He even let slip the word perestroika, a taboo in the Kremlin, but only in passing. This is comfortable politics for the Kremlin, as well as for most pro-modernization forces within Russian society.

Little seemed to preclude Putin from elevating Kudrin to the role of a “reform tsar” but the president decided not to. Kudrin’s new position feels underwhelming.

Kudrin was forced to leave the government in 2011 after a public row with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over military spending. In 2012, Kudrin created the Committee of Civic Initiatives, an NGO with a mission to help society influence government decisions. Between 2012 and 2016, Kudrin retained his influence with the Kremlin while acquiring respect as a civil society player.

He sponsored a number of research projects and policy proposals that were met with much interest on both sides of the Kremlin walls. A draft of the Interior Ministry reform that Kudrin sponsored and presented in 2013 was based on an in-depth study of Russian police, conducted originally by the European University in St. Petersburg. No trace of these proposals is found in the reforms that created the National Guard.

Read more: The Kremlin Is Entrenching Itself | Wilson Center

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