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#11 - JRL 7176
Asia Times
May 9, 2003
The Kremlin as an unequal opportunity employer
By Peter Lavelle

MOSCOW - While some Russians protested "oligarchic capitalism" over the May Day weekend and others used the free time to visit the dacha, the Kremlin was quietly busy resolving a thorny personnel issue and, in the process, confirmed that it is an equal-opportunity employer for the unpopular, criminally suspect and incompetent. The aim to develop a more professional state administration in Russia was dealt a heavy blow.

Yevgeny Nazdratenko, former governor of the Primorye region in Russia's Far East, was appointed by President Vladimir Putin to serve as deputy head of the State Security Council only three months after having been suspended under a cloud of corruption charges as head of the State Fisheries Commission. The appointment of the notoriously scandal-prone Nazdratenko indicates yet again that there is no such thing as a failed political career in Russia. In fact, charges of corruption and incompetence appear to be grounds for promotion.

Nazdratenko is in a class of his own. When he was governor of Primorye, residents were forced to live through freezing winters due to the incompetence of regional authorities in properly drawing up energy plans. This poor region's cash-rich fishing industry remains in chaos, the victim of outlandish corruption - even by Russian standards - with the governor's office taking the leading role in nabbing profits for itself.

The Kremlin finally forced Nazdratenko to resign his governorship, only to be given another chance when he was made head of the State Fisheries Commission, where his authority over the country's fishing industry was strengthened. Finally, and for a change, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov decided Nazdratenko had to go after allegations of shady fishing-quota deals were made public. The endgame for such politicians is apparently promotion to a body that is mandated to advise the president on national security issues.

Nazdratenko will be in good company in his new job. His peers include former interior minister Vladimir Rushailo, who is the council's secretary, Vladimir Sherstyuk, former head of now-defunct Federal Border Service and the Tax Police, and Vyacheslav Soltaganov, former head of the also now-defunct Tax Police. None has had stellar public service careers, though they have enough political weight and/or backing to remain within the corridors of power. With the notable exception of Rushailo, most members of the State Security Council have little or any meaningful experience in the area of national security.

In the grand scheme of things, the fate of Nazdratenko is a minor detail. However, the story also explains a lot about Russia's political elite. Putin has initiated three major administrative reform efforts during his presidency: The country's regional governors have been reined in, "chekists" (former KGB officials)have been installed into the power ministries and state agencies, and the KGB itself has almost been recreated. During all three restructuring drives, few senior officials have been made redundant. Unemployment or retirement for the administrative elite appears to be a near impossibility.

The fact that Nazdratenko is not facing a tribunal is regrettable, but the fact that Russia under Putin is not experiencing a rotation of state administrators who have the skills to manage and meet civil needs borders on the tragic, even outrageous. Russia's influx of considerable ruble liquidity has seen society become more sophisticated and confident with every passing day, as well as more demanding that the state protect the interests of what some call Russia's emerging "middle class". Nazdratenko's promotion - and apparent political protection - are clear indications that the Kremlin is out of touch with what is happening on the ground. This is not what Putin's "quiet revolution" is supposed to be about.

Russia is truly at a crossroads at present, but what happens is not something that will be determined from above. The regime's unofficial imperative of "enrich yourself", usually directed at the oligarchs, has also filtered down to the "little people". This is something that the latter will not give up without resistance, irrespective of the likes of irresponsible, incompetent and corrupt state officials like Nazdratenko and his peers.

It is extremely imprudent on the Kremlin's part that it continues to cover up or de-emphasize officials' omissions and commissions at the expense of the official policy of the "dictatorship of law". In doing so, it puts the stress on "dictatorship" instead of "law". This does not engender popular consent and belief in the political culture that Putin claims he is attempting to bolster. Giving refuge to people who have little interest in the common well-being in a state agency that is supposed to protect the interests of all Russians is an example of equal employment gone wrong. A few cases of actual political careers gone bad might demonstrate that the country's political culture is finally making progress. In the meantime, that Nazdratenko is giving advice to the president on national security issues seems rather fishy.

Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the weekly e-newsletter "Untimely Thoughts".

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