The Purge of the Kremlin Chairmen

MOSCOW – In recent days, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has moved against some of the most powerful men in the Kremlin, including Igor Sechin, a deputy prime minister who is perhaps the closest figure to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – and who is also the chairman of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil firm. A decree signed by Medvedev with the stated purpose of improving the country’s investment climate will strip Sechin and others of their chairmanships of some of Russia’s biggest state-owned companies. But the purge may reflect other, more important goals.

Medvedev has in the past recognized both the need to attract Russian and foreign investment and the country’s dismal investment climate. But this time his actions truly matched his rhetoric, as he outlined specific measures to be taken and set deadlines for implementing them. And, with some of the measures bound to face stiff opposition by powerful interest groups, the reforms are set to be a major test of Medvedev’s real strength – and of his plans to run for another term as president. Even partial success would allow a Medvedev re-election campaign to be built around themes of anti-corruption and transparency.

Corruption and government accountability are probably the single most important issues for Medvedev’s electoral base among Russia’s rising middle class and “protest” voters. The ruling United Russia party’s recent poor performance in regional elections show that the electorate is fed up with the status quo and is ready to vote for an alternative.

The success of the leading anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny is another wake-up call for Medvedev. Importantly, many of the measures proposed by the president are similar to those recommended by Navalny: removing government officials from the boards of state-owned companies; ensuring access to corporate documents for minority shareholders; and developing a way to respond to whistle-blowers on corruption.