Date: 18 April 2017
Yet Another Dismissal, a Shock for the System of Power
Leonid Markelov has ruled the Mari El Republic for 16 years. He left the post of Governor on April 16. Officially, he resigned himself – the Kremlin was supposed to find a new position for him. Surprisingly, however, on April 13 Markelov was detained and taken to Moscow. On April 14, by decision of a Moscow court, he was placed in custody until at least June 12. Markelov is accused of having accepted, since 2013, bribes of 235 million rubles in total (ca. 4 million dollars). The ex-governor denies the accusations and declares that he will continue his political career.
This has been a shock for the ruling elites, as President Vladimir Putin himself has promised a “new job” to Markelov. When appointing Alexander Estifeev as the new Governor of Mari El, Putin stated: “Now a situation has arisen when the acting head of the republic has asked for another area of work. Leonid Igorevich [Markelov] has been in Mari El for 16 years and would like to change his place of work”. If it weren’t for these Putin’s words, the arrest of Markelov would just be added to the growing list of dismissed and arrested governors. Just a week before Markelov’s dismissal, Udmurtia’s Governor, Alexander Solovev, had been removed from the office. The wave of governors’ arrests began already in 2014, with detention of Alexander Khoroshavin, the Governor of Sakhalin Oblast, and it has since continued. Nevertheless, the story of Markelov stands out from others. Alexander Khoroshavin, Vyacheslav Gayzer (Governor of the Komi Republic), Nikita Belykh (Kirov Oblast) or Solovev, who were all arrested in recent years, did not get any guarantees from the President. Several governors ended up behind bars only after they had been dismissed by President’s decision, due to the “loss of trust”. With Markelov, it was different – there were rumors that he would become a senator. So far, the word of Putin used to be treated as a verdict of the highest instance. This is proved by the case of Dmitry Medvedev. Putin promised Medvedev during their famous fishing expedition in 2011 that he would hold the post of Prime Minister until 2018, and Medvedev is still the Prime Minister, despite numerous attacks against him and although he has powerful enemies in the Lubyanka and in the Kremlin. President’s public support thus far protected officials of a much lower rank than a governor. This was visible even during the last series of changes of the heads of republics. Putin would meet with every leaving governor and thanked him for his service. It was a signal that they weren’t facing arrest and that they would be assigned a different public post.
What befell Markelov will arouse increasing nervousness in Russian political elites. There may be two explanations of has happened, both not optimistic for the officials, politicians and businessmen. Version number one: the word of Putin is not as important as it used to be; President may promise something and then go back on his promise. Version number two: the siloviki are playing their own game, either in collaboration or in conflict with someone in the Kremlin, and they don’t inform President about it. In both cases, a fundamental rule underlying the government system functioning thus far in Russia (power vertical, or vertikal vlasti) has been undermined. The system has functioned reasonably efficiently as long as the highest arbiter remained at the top of the pyramid. Now, we have a big question mark. And what is the moral for the governors (and all other administration staff)? It doesn’t matter if you give way to Kremlin or not, you may end up behind the bars anyway. We will soon learn how destructive will the impact of Markelov’s case be on the attitude of administration, especially considering the economic crisis and the growing wave of protests.
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