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16 August 2016

Russia’s new generation of technocrats

Ordering power: Durable electoral authoritarianism and the rise of Anton Vaino

In February 2009 Anton Vaino was excluded from the “top 100”, the presidential cadre reserve that had been formed by instruction PR-1573 dated August 1, 2008 of then president Dmitri Medvedev. Vaino, newly appointed deputy head of Vladimir Putin’s prime ministerial apparatus, was dropped from the list with other officials from the presidential administration and the government’s office as the “top 100” was initially meant as a stepping stone for aspiring bureaucrats to be later appointed to key positions in the Russian state. Vaino (born 1972) seemingly already in 2009 had been deemed as an established official; seven years later on August 12, 2016 he would replace Sergei Ivanov (*1953) as head of the presidential administration, informally the second most powerful position in Russia’s state bureaucracy.

Understanding the formation and function of bureaucratic cadre reserves is not only useful to shed light on Ivanov’s recent replacement by Vaino without lapsing into Kremlinology, but also to make sense of the broader emerging picture of how Russia’s current electoral authoritarian regime rejuvenates, and therefore reproduces itself. Authoritarian durability is achieved by gradually rotating elite actors out of key positions who often share a common past with Vladimir Putin (*1952) in the Soviet KGB or Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, born in the 1940s and 1950s, and replacing them by cadres who made their career in the 2000s in the federal, or sometimes, even regional bureaucracies. Arguably the first example illustrating this trend was Vladimir Yakunin (*1948) who in 2015 was replaced by Oleg Belozerov (*1969) as head of Russian railways with the latter also hailing from the “class of 2009”. Or take Viktor Ivanov (*1950) whose Federal Drug Control Service FSKN lost its independent status; the reformed department under the Ministry of the Internal is now headed by Andrei Khrapov (*1970) who made his career in Moscow’s Ministry of the Internal. This trend is significant as the old rule of “stability of cadres” that had been firmly in place since 2003/2004 when the last major figures of the Yeltsin “family” left office is not valid any more. The old bonds of mutual control and joint responsibility - or “krugovaia poruka” - of a small group of officials known for their personal ties to president Putin, are slowly being unraveled, and new bonds are being formed. In the case of Vladimir Yakunin and Viktor Ivanov, the transition was rather painless, in other instances such as the former head of the Federal Customs Service Andrei Belianinov (*1957) criminal investigations threaten freedom and personal wealth of elite actors that for years had appeared to be firmly in their seats.

Many theories have already been put forward on why Sergei Ivanov was sacked and Anton Vaino appointed as new head of the presidential administration (for a useful overview of four theories see Sean Guillory’s newsletter). Reviewing patterns of when and how heads of the presidential administration are usually replaced in the last 25 years since the administration was created in August 1991, Ivanov’s exit is not extraordinary for two reasons. First, electoral cycles matter: Replacements as a rule occur shortly before or after parliamentary and presidential elections. Secondly, time is also crucial. With 1,695 days in office, Ivanov was record holder, and therefore likely to be replaced sooner or earlier (Aleksandr Voloshin stayed in the administration for 1,686 days from 1999-2003, Sergei Naryshkin 1,317 days from 2008 to 2011). In two and a half decades and 11 chief of staff leaving office, if anything Ivanov’s departure is consistent with broader patterns rather than an exception. 1996 - 1999 were extraordinary times as four heads of the administration had to go within little more than three years. Under Putin, Dmitri Medvedev’s exit in 2005 was the exception as his stint of 746 days was rather short, and the departure was unrelated to electoral cycles.

Before his appointment, Anton Vaino had stayed under the radar and had almost gone unnoticed by the public and the media. In a 2015 report, Evgeny Minchenko was one of the few who referred to Vaino as belonging to a new cohort of technocrats emerging to manage the economy. Beside Vaino and Russian railways’ Belozerov, Minchenko enumerates Denis Manturov (Minister of Economy and Trade, *1969) and Aleksandr Novak (Minister of Energy, *1971). All of them were included in the “top 100” presidential reserve in 2009 only to be promoted a few years later, many others such as Nikolai Nikiforov (Minister of communication, *1982) or Vladimir Tokarev (Federal Agency for construction, residency and utility services, *1977) could have also been included by Minchenko. All of them are personally indebted to president Putin for his patronage, which is particularly obvious with Anton Vaino. Born in Estonia in 1972 in a Soviet nomenklatura family, Vaino graduated from the elite diplomacy university MGIMO and later served as a diplomat in Russia’s foreign ministry. In 2002, he transferred to the presidential administration’s protocol department responsible for international diplomatic contacts and working meetings of the president and the administration’s staff. In 2004, Vaino was appointed deputy head of the newly created protocol and organization department broadening his sphere of responsibility to both foreign and domestic working meetings and travels of the Russian president. After the job swap of Putin and Medvedev was announced in 2007, Vaino transferred to the prime minister’s apparat, but eventually returned to the presidential administration when Putin resumed office in 2012, now already as deputy chief of staff. As photo stories nicely illustrate, Vaino since the mid-2000s has been among the officials with daily personal contact with Putin as Vaino was responsible for the former’s daily schedule.

However, to attribute the emergence of Russia’s new technocrats mainly to their individual loyalty to Vladimir Putin is to exaggerate regime personalization. Vaino and the “class of 2009” is only the tip of a cadre reserve of bureaucratic managers that has been institutionalized over the past years. “Manual control” in specific instances coexist with routinized, technocratic processes more or less stable over time that previously characterized such diverse regimes as the Soviet Union or Latin America’s 20th century bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Brazil. In addition to the “top 100”, Russia’s current federal cadre reserve amounts to roughly 4600, the regional reserve is officially at 7600. Notably, this system of cadre reserves is only made public for civil servants, but also practiced for military and law enforcement cadres. Although very little is known about the siloviki cadre reserve policy one could assume that governors such as Aleksei Diumin (Tula, *1972) or Evgeny Zinichev (Kaliningrad, *1966) who both stem from the Federal Guards Service are the product of a similar cadre policy.

Anton Vaino is also symptomatic for another broader tendency associated with regime reproduction and generational change: sons of fathers who occupied powerful positions in state and economy in the 2000s now also gradually rise in ranks. Anton Vaino’s father has been vice-president of Avtovaz since 2009, Russia’s carmaker and a key enterprise in the state defense enterprise Rostec controlled by Sergei Chemezov. Despite his age and reputation as a technocratic clerk with little elite resources in comparison to once presidential hopeful Sergei Ivanov it would be premature to downgrade Vaino as a mere yea-sayer executing Putin’s will. If we recall that Vladimir Putin started his Moscow career in 1996 as head of the presidential property department or that Igor Sechin had worked in the presidential administration’s chancellery before becoming one of Russia’s most powerful energy managers at Rosneft there is no systematic reason why Vaino would not build a power base of his own. Even more so as he has sat on the supervisory board of Rostec since 2014 together with other department heads and advisors of the presidential administration and defense officials. He is thus no stranger to Russia’s military-industrial complex.

With Rostec board member Denis Manturov Vaino even shares yet another communality: both own real estate in the elite Yacht club Pirogovo near Moscow. Moreover, until 2012, Vaino’s wife, Elena Shulenkova, owned a house in Moscow’s settlement Barvikha in close vicinity to the son and son-in-law of Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard, as well as the in-laws of the above-mentioned Aleksei Diumin.

By all means, we are apparently witnessing a gradual rejuvenation and therefore reproduction of Russia’s electoral, bureaucratic authoritarianism. The million dollar question is whether the regime will continue to have an aging personalist leader, or whether Russia’s highest office will eventually see a power transition, too. 

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