The strange arrest of Leonid Markelov, the head of the Republic of Mariy-El, a week after his resignation surprised the public — Vladimir Putin personally had only just had time to legitimize the republic head’s wish to move to different work before the FSB [Federal Security Service] rewrote the scenario, instigating a criminal bribery case. The now ex-governor was arrested and taken to Moscow with a real risk of ending up in a detention center. It is hard not to agree that in this situation the head of state looks stupid, to say the least. In trying to come to his boss’s rescue, his press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, is finding less than convincing explanations, while in the public space an active discussion is already under way about a descent into chaos, the weakening of the President, and the special services’ lawlessness.
The Russian public which has been carefully following the replacement of governors and other recent political trends seems to have itself fallen into a trap: For too long we have been trying to persuade each other that a personalistic regime has been built in the country and decisions are made in a permanent manual control regime while Putin personally looks into every issue and is behind every relatively important personnel or political move. Within the framework of that logic, something unimaginable is indeed happening: Passing through the peaceful mechanism of the changeover of power in the region, the Republic of Mariy-El governor resigns of his own volition but then comes under arrest.
Of itself the resignation was natural and predictable: Despite all the governor’s weak points (and there were quite a few of those, you only have to look at the mass of compromising items on the Internet), his unconvincing victory at the recent elections, and various political scandals, the Kremlin (probably in the person of Sergey Kiriyenko, the new overseer of the Domestic Policy Administration) selected a successor for him calmly, within the framework of its own logic. Markelov himself had been promised (otherwise he would scarcely have expanded on the matter) a place on the Federation Council. That is likely precisely what Putin had in mind when he spoke of the former republic head’s request «that he be used in a different job.» However, few people drew attention to the fact that the republic’s new acting head, Aleksandr Yevstifeyev, had cautiously criticized his predecessor for the insufficiently effective development of agriculture in the region, which is at odds with the story that a blow to Markelov is a blow to Kiriyenko.
It is also from the agricultural complex that the second explanation for Markelov’s arrest originates. Behind its logic there stands the expansion over the past two years of the FSB (with the Russian Investigations Committee giving it operational backup for its cases), which has initiated all the high-profile arrests of recent years and is laying claim to the role of a kind of Putin secret police [oprichniki — Ivan the Terrible’s secret police]. But the only thing is that it is utterly unclear from current items in the media who, if we discount the political ambitions of the FSB, could really be behind the criminal prosecution of the former republic head.
In reality for several years now a friendly alliance between the CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and the chekists, who have formed a firm partnership of convenience, has been playing against Markelov. Back in 2015 Sergey Mamayev, at the time a State Duma deputy and later a candidate for the post of Mariy-El leader, together with Foreign Intelligence Service [SKR] Colonel Mikhail Dolgov, prepared a report entitled «Corruption in Mariy-El» on whose basis another CPRF deputy, Nikolay Kharitonov, demanded that the FSB and SKR investigate Markelov’s suspect investments in the republic’s agricultural complex. This was to do with the «Akashevo» agricultural holding whose owner, Nikolay Krivash, had allegedly been receiving illegal loans with the governor’s support. Incidentally, since the enterprise’s founding in 2005, the loans had been issued by none other than Rosselkhozbank, whose board of directors is headed by Nikolay Patrushev’s son Dmitriy. You can easily find items on the Internet accusing Patrushev of providing loans for Markelov’s dubious projects.
It now turns out that this terrific bunch of people had received a kind of blessing from Putin for the development of the republic’s agro-industrial complex. You only have to look at the chronicle of Putin’s activities for 2012 in which the President personally praises Markelov and Krivash for their efforts to boost the republic’s agro-industrial complex. And in 2014 it was Patrushev Junior himself who at a meeting with Putin called the provision of credit for a poultry factory in Mariy-El «a very interesting and important project» in which nearly 30 billion rubles were invested.
At the same time, at the end of 2016 the Kremlin sold «Akashevo» to the N.I. Tkachev Agrokompleks company — the biggest agricultural holding company in Krasnodarskiy Kray, founded by the father of Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev, the kray’s former governor. In 2015 Tkachev confirmed to RBK that the company’s beneficiaries were members of his family. It was not only the assets but also the large debts of this company, which turned out to be in a difficult financial position, that passed to the new owner.
Meanwhile Markelov and Krivash were fighting not only the CPRF, which has substantial positions in the region, but also the FSB: In 2013 «Akashevo» was accused of the illegal construction of poultry houses not far from Danilovo airfield. This military airfield is close to Yoshkar-Ola. The 681st Air Defense Fighter Aviation Regiment used to be based there, while the FSB’s aviation group is now deployed there. The latter did not agree to the construction of the poultry houses on the grounds that an accumulation of poultry close to the airfield was dangerous, but Krivash disputed that decision in court. But the initial decision to construct the poultry houses had been approved at the level of the governor without agreement with the FSB. That is how an alliance is naturally forming between the Communists, business, and the FSB, all interested in bringing a case against Markelov. The former are fighting for their political positions in the region and are hyping the topical subject of fighting corruption in the public space, while business gets a chance not to hand back loans that have been deemed illegal, while the FSB continues to strike terror into the hearts of the governors’ corps and to reinforce its positions as Putin’s main anticorruption force.
The managerial layer cake in which on the one hand there is the resolution of a personnel problem in the context of the presidential campaign (the removal of weak governors and an emphasis on minimizing conflicts) and on the other there is real political life making its own adjustments is on the way out.
To understand how cases like Markelov’s arrest originate from this situation you only have to look at the extremely indicative words that Putin uttered during a debate at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs congress in March of this year. Responding to businessman Roman Trotsenko’s request to support a reduction in taxes, Vladimir Putin suddenly talked about a management problem he has to deal with every day. «Let’s suppose . . . I am having a discussion with the Finance Ministry. I say: ‘A tax on property.’ They immediately say: Let’s reduce regional budgets [instead] straight away.’ I tell them: ‘Listen, we don’t have that property yet. We are talking about future property.’ ‘Then we will destroy the principles of the taxation system.’ Very often we have a discussion of this kind, believe me, it often happens. . . . [Finance Minister] Anton Germanovich [Siluanov] will say to you in response: ‘If we give them a concession of that kind, we will never see a profit.'»
Taxes have nothing to do with the Markelov story, but there is something else that is of interest: On difficult issues requiring that all the pros and cons be weighed up and which provide neither geopolitical nor electoral advantages and take a lot of time and effort, Vladimir Putin prefers to delegate the preparation of solutions, and whoever is the first to offer an acceptable solution is the one who wins. But it does happen that Putin will promise support to the bearer of one «piece of paper» but will then simply «adjust» his opinion and decision, taking into account another piece of paper containing circumstances which have newly come to light.
When he received Yevstifeyev 6 April Putin may have been acting in accordance with the logic of the Presidential Staff Domestic Policy Administration, which initially suggested the head of state support the replacement of the Mariy-El head, saying he has been around too long, he is weak, he may not ensure the required electoral result in March 2018. And in general the new line of the updated Presidential Staff is built on boosting managerial effectiveness, and that means that those who have been in their posts too long must give way to «fresh blood.» And the more painlessly this process proceeds, the better. So they did not start «sinking» Markelov but preferred to agree with him «amicably.» Putin’s momentous meeting a couple of months ago with the dismissed governors, whom the President asked to render every assistance to their replacements, falls within the same logic.
Let us assume that a couple of days after meeting with Yevstifeyev, Aleksandr Bortnikov, for instance, comes to Putin and also puts down a file on Markelov and asks for an arrest warrant. In this situation will Putin reassess all the risks of how he looks? Hardly. If there are grounds for it, go ahead and do it, is what Putin will most likely say in response, perceiving what is happening as a routine, boring, and utterly insignificant work process against the background of Syria, Trump, the G-20, and other far more intriguing things to which he is more accustomed.
Can we call this a weakness on Putin’s part? As of today such a conclusion seems premature, to say the least: At the present stage the President still determines for himself what to delegate to his subordinates and what to keep under his personal control. But it is obvious that the overall space for his subordinates to act freely has expanded markedly in recent years. Initiative is no longer punished. Putting governors in prison, exposing a minister, bugging functionaries, putting pressure on the opposition — all this has been allowed to take its course as autonomous activity, and it is not so much that Putin cannot control all this as that he does not want to. That time here is working against the President is another matter. In the preceding period (before Crimea) nothing moved without instructions from the head of state, but now everything is in motion. Previously initiative was perceived as a risk, now it is seen as a means of salvation. Putin could intervene at any moment and adjust the course of development of almost any scenario but with every passing year this will be more difficult and he himself will look increasingly weak. The system is passing to a regime of self-management under conditions where Putin does not care for it. This transition is accompanied by an influx of technocrats whose power will ultimately crush Putin’s manual control, transferring the right to set the vector of development to spontaneous processes and strange alliances.