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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tarpishchev: Good Move, Bad Timing

The strangest aspect of the dismissal of Shamil Tarpishchev, Russia's sports minister, is that it is important. Why should the leadership of the Sports Ministry be regarded as a crucial post in a country with much more to worry about than athletic achievement?


In fact, Tarpishchev has been one of the crucial players in the Kremlin for the past two years. His status as President Boris Yeltsin's favorite tennis partner gave him access to the seat of power he used to create the National Sports Fund, a body that operated under the cover of providing financial aid to sports but was really an all-purpose government slush fund.


Tarpishchev had huge discretion on how the fund spent billions of dollars earned from tax exemptions on the import of cigarettes and alcohol.


The influence Tarpishchev drew from this huge cash cow made him one of the most inscrutable and feared power brokers in the Kremlin. In a mark of his influence, Yeltsin appointed him as the deputy head of his re-election campaign at the start of the year.


Tarpishchev was then at the height of his powers and together with his close allies -- presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, first deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets and Federal Security Service chief Mikhail Barsukov -- he formed the ruling clique in the Kremlin, known by some as the "party of war."


Things started to go sour in May when Tarpishchev's appointee as successor at the fund was arrested, then stabbed in a mafia hit and replaced by one of Korzhakov's henchmen. Soon after, Yeltsin sacked Korzhakov, Soskovets and Barsukov, judging quite rightly that they were an electoral liability.


Tarpishchev clung to power for a few months longer than his more high-profile allies, perhaps because of his close personal ties to Yeltsin or perhaps because of his more indirect involvement in the party of war, but his fate was already decided. His dismissal is a welcome sign that Yeltsin has completely cut his ties with the discredited gang of Kremlin cronies that was led by Korzhakov.


But the timing of Tarpishchev's dismissal is worrying. It appears that Yeltsin finally dismissed his tennis partner from the sports minister's job because Korzhakov is sounding out an alliance with security chief Alexander Lebed, now seen as the wild-card threat to succeed the ailing Yeltsin. Tarpishchev was likely ditched because Lebed's liberal rivals feared a Korzhakov-Lebed alliance and decided that Korzhakov's last ally in the Kremlin had to go.


If this is the case, the sacking was not part of a campaign victory for cleaner, more open government. Rather, it was just the fallout from yet another Kremlin power struggle.