February 19, 2007
A Leadership Void at the Defense Ministry
By Simon Saradzhyan
The appointment of a former furniture store manager and tax collector to the post of defense minister may help bring the military's books in order but will not boost its overall preparedness, military analysts say.
President Vladimir Putin's decision Thursday to tap Federal Tax Service chief Anatoly Serdyukov to head the country's million-strong military created an uproar among many military personnel.
As of Sunday, the Defense Ministry had no official comment on Serdyukov's appointment.
The ministry posted the new minister's biography and a brief account of the meeting at which Putin announced the change in leadership on its web site.
Presenting Serdyukov to the military's top brass Thursday, Putin voiced hopes the Armed Forces General Staff, which is headed by General Yury Baluyevsky, would play a lead role in future military planning. The president added that he hoped the new minister, with his numbers-crunching background, would focus on the military's "financial component."
Putin has repeatedly asked the Defense Ministry to account for wasteful spending.
Serdyukov's immediate predecessor, Sergei Ivanov, acknowledged during his six-year tenure that wastefulness was a problem.
"In theory, his appointment may indeed help streamline the [military's] finances," said Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. The center and other independent think tanks have repeatedly highlighted the inefficiencies of the Defense Ministry's procurement system.
Russia's defense budget has grown steadily in recent years due to an economic boom fueled by high oil prices, jumping to $31.3 billion in 2007 from $8.2 billion in 2001.
Serdyukov, 45, worked in the furniture business in the 1980s and 1990s before joining the Federal Tax Service, his official biography says.
Oddly, the version of his biography posted on the Defense Ministry's web site makes no reference to what Serdyukov did after graduating from Leningrad Institute of Soviet Trade and St. Petersburg State University and before becoming deputy head of a tax inspectorate in 2000.
Given Serdyukov's background, "his appointment has caused nothing but astonishment," Makiyenko said.
Makiyenko added that the underpaid, conscript-based armed forces must be reformed to become a "fully professional, well paid and motivated" war machine, but he expressed strong doubts that Serdyukov was up to the task. "In my opinion, Ivanov did little to improve combat readiness, and I don't think Serdyukov can do much more," he said.
Alexander Golts, a retired military officer and columnist for the web magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, was more blunt.
"The man ? appointed to the post of defense minister spent more time in his career working in a furniture store than doing anything else and doesn't understand one darn thing about military affairs," Golts wrote Friday in an article titled "Anyone Can Become a Minister Here."
A retired senior Air Force officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of Serdyukov in a telephone interview.
"To put it mildly," the retired officer said, "he won't be able to pull off a revolution in military affairs."
Another retired officer, who also asked not to be named, concurred, saying the "bright side" of Serdyukov's appointment was that the Baluyevsky and the General Staff are now in a position to fill in the void created by Serdyukov, who lacks the charisma and political heft of his predecessor.