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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Firing Deals a Powerful Blow to Siloviki Clan

Itar-TassUstinov's ouster is fueling speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to balance the influence of Kremlin clans.
The firing of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov has considerably weakened the siloviki clan in the Kremlin, which favors extending President Vladimir Putin's powers beyond 2008, and strengthens the hand of the faction that favors a managed presidential succession.

Kremlin insiders have long viewed Ustinov as a loyal lieutenant of Putin aides Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, who both hail from the KGB and know Putin from his years in St. Petersburg.

The ties binding Sechin, widely seen as the leader of the siloviki clan, to the prosecutor general were cemented by the marriage of his daughter to Ustinov's son.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov -- who was reportedly recommended to Putin for his job by Sechin -- is also thought to be associated with this clan.

The Kremlin siloviki clan has gained extra political clout recently, and it should come as no surprise that Putin has decided to weaken it, experts said.

"Putin's interference was inevitable, as he wants to remain above the fight -- to continue being a powerbroker -- which is possible only when there are several clans roughly equal to each other in influence and strength," Nikolai Petrov, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Friday.

The Sechin-Ivanov clan has made significant inroads into other groups' home turf, managing to wrest control of the Federal Customs Service, which accounts for some 40 percent of government revenues, from Economic Trade and Development Minister German Gref. Gref is allied with the loosely allied clan of St. Petersburg liberals, which also includes Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

It was Medvedev who lobbied for the ouster of Ustinov, according to Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Center for National Strategies. The strengthening of Medvedev and the liberal economists from St. Petersburg sends a positive signal to the West ahead of the 2008 presidential elections. Medvedev and his fellow deputy prime minister, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, are vying to become Putin's heir apparent. Under the Constitution, Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Ivanov, while also a KGB veteran, has preferred to act independently of the siloviki.

One of the options considered by the siloviki has been to convince Putin to have the State Duma and Federation Council amend the Constitution to allow a third term for Putin. Any weakening of their influence would help to restore the system of informal checks and balances in the Byzantine world of Putin's inner circle and undermine the position of the advocates of the third term.

"Both Medvedev and [Sergei] Ivanov gain from this, and since the two have been named as possible successors, the idea of succession has gained more weight versus the idea of a third term," Alexei Makarkin, of the Center for Political Technologies, said Friday.

Petrov said that the political context in which Ustinov was fired reminded him of when President Boris Yeltsin fired two of his senior siloviki officials in 1996, Presidential Security Service chief Alexander Korzhakov and FSB director Mikhail Barsukov, who were calling for upcoming presidential elections to be canceled.

The latest poll by the independent Levada polling agency shows the two would-be successors, Medevedev and Sergei Ivanov, running neck and neck. While Ivanov has the support of 19 percent of Russians and Medvedev 18 percent, as many as 44 percent would not vote for either as a successor to Putin. The poll, which was conducted in April and published May 2, had a margin of error of less than 3 percent.

Belkovsky, however, said the siloviki had dropped the idea of a third term and were instead touting the possibility of having Ustinov compete with Ivanov and Medvedev for Putin's blessing.

Petrov disagreed, arguing that Fradkov would be the siloviki's candidate.

Putin had been looking to oust Ustinov since the beginning of this year, but Sechin had until now protected him, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "This dismissal will set off a massive reshuffle at the very top, which will last for quite a long time until Putin finds a configuration that suits him," Kryshtanovskaya said.

What the new configuration of competing clans looks like will only be clear after Putin announces Ustinov's replacement and where the former prosecutor general will be next, Belkovsky and other experts said.

Ustinov is unlikely to be promoted to a post that would give him as much clout with apparatchiks as his previous job, given that his departure was so abrupt and without fanfare, Petrov said.

Petrov and Makarkin named Putin aide Dmitry Kozak as the best choice to preserve the newly established balance of power, as he is largely an independent figure, even though he has been associated with the St. Petersburg liberals. Unlike Ustinov, Kozak is unlikely to tolerate prosecutors getting involved in inter-clan fighting. Under Ustinov, prosecutors have at times used their positions to attack political opponents by barring them from elections and investigating companies that finance opposition candidates.

Most recently, prosecutors last month secured the arrest of Alexei Barinov, the governor of the oil- and gas-rich Nenets autonomous district. Barinov was elected in 2005, beating a candidate backed by state oil firm Rosneft, which has major business interests there. Sechin is Rosneft board chairman. Earlier in May, prosecutors managed to get preferred shares in pipeline monopoly Transneft frozen and demanded the owners of these shares be disclosed.

Makarkin said Putin's plan was likely for prosecutors not to interfere in the elections. "The Kremlin will do without them, as otherwise the elections would be criticized as unfair," Makarkin said.