Sukhodolsky’s ouster from the St Petersburg police: Nurgaliev’s revenge, brutal MVD politics and a suggestion of a breakdown in silovik etiquette

The outgoing Mikhail Sukhodolsky

On Friday 10 February, OMON riot police surrounded the St Petersburg police headquarters on Suvorovsky Prospekt and evicted Colonel General (Police) Mikhail Igorevich Sukhodolsky. Earlier that day, President Medvedev had signed a terse order relieving him of his duties as head of the St Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast Main Internal Affairs Directorate (GUVD) on unspecified grounds. Sukhodolsky himself subsequently held a press conference in which he enumerated the successes of his force in the time since he was appointed last year. (Interestingly enough, there’s no mention on the force’s webpage.)

Why has Russia’s second most senior field police commander, a man specially moved into this position in June 2011 from the position of first deputy interior minister, been sacked just eight months later, and so publicly at that?

The formal reason would seem to be connected to the death in custody of 15-year-old Nikita Leontiev. Having been arrested on 22 January on robbery charges, he was taken into custody in St Petersburg’s Nevsky district and then died that night. After an initial police claim that Leontiev had died from an epileptic seizure, it then emerged that he had been beaten while in custody. Police officer Denis Ivanov subsequently admitted to the abuse and now faces manslaughter charges.

So far, so depressingly commonplace. Violence and abuse is still all too common within the Russian police. Slow progress is being made to address it, but this is a lengthy process of cultural change. Nonetheless, Sukhodolsky moved quite quickly to respond. Three of Ivanov’s superiors, Valeri Belotserkovsky (head of the Nevsky district police), Oleg Prokhorenko and Major Alexei Malykh, were publicly disciplined and dismissed (Malykh then died of a heart attack on 5 February).

That this was not being treated as a ‘usual’ case of indiscipline and violence soon became evident when the central Ministry of Internal Affairs sent an untypically large team to St Petersburg to investigate the case: originally to be up to 60 officers and specialists, then reduced to a still-large 30-strong team. While the MVD will look into all such incidents, this is often (usually, I suspect) done primarily by reading the reports filed by those on the ground and relying on the in-house internal affairs department (the UVB) rather than sending people from Moscow to dig into the case themselves. Furthermore, this was a much more sizable and high-power delegation than such a case would typically warrant. I can’t state this as fact, but it seems to be larger than that which looked into the 2009 case where police Major Denis Evsyukov went amuck and killed two people and wounded seven — which one would have suspected would be considered a rather graver case.

At that time, Sukhodolsky seemed on the defensive. He affirmed that he had no concerns, but did express surprise that the MVD was launching a full investigation, as in his view the St Petersburg police had treated the case in a timely and appropriate fashion. However, he seemed to become increasingly alarmed, especially as it became clear that the MVD was looking at a range of entirely unconnected issues, including his management of FGUP Okhrana, a police-run private security service which he had established for the MVD in 2005. On 26 January, the Federal Antimonopoly Service issued a judgment that Okhrana and the MVD had violated federal competition law and Moscow police also conducted searches at several branches of Okhrana, which has annual profits of about 200 million rubles. Indeed, there appears to have been an explicit agenda of digging up dirt on Sukhodolsky.

So Sukhodolsky spoke out against the Leontiev probe, warning that was “illegitimate” and risked “destabilizing” the St Petersburg police. However, one of the lessons of a state like Russia’s is that once the juggernaut is rolling, you are unlikely either to stop it or get out of its way. On 10 February, Medvedev held his annual meeting with the Kollegium of senior police officers. Sukhodolsky chose not to attend, citing medical reasons, and instead sent his deputy, Marina Matveeva. This was a tactically inept move, as even if he felt that the outcome was inevitable, it played into the hands of his enemies. Medvedev talked up the results of the police reform he introduced in 2011 but also made it clear that there was room for improvement and further personnel turnover. Pointedly, he warned that “There’s no place on the police force for hysterics and personal PR”.

Admittedly, Sukhodolsky may well have felt he could not afford to leave St Petersburg because, according to Fontanka.ru, by this time the local force was all but in mutiny against him, with a groundswell of opinion that he had to go. On 9 February, senior officers began laying the groundwork to express their lack of confidence in him.

The incoming Sergei Umnov

While the Kollegium meeting in Moscow was under way, a statement about Sukhodolsky’s dismissal was released and moves began to oust him from his office, an operation organised by Sergei Umnov, his deputy and now acting replacement. Apparently, a cheer went up in the St Petersburg headquarters when this was announced.

The day after Sukhodolsky’s ouster, Presidential representative to the North-Western Federal District Nikolai Vinnichenko said the inquiry into the St Petersburg police was ongoing. Speaking to a meeting of St Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast police commander also attended by a heavyweight cast of extras including Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Gerasimov, St Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, Leningrad Oblast Governor Valery Serdyukov and several other MVD generals from Moscow, he asserted that “Sukhodolsky’s dismissal is only the first result of the probe.” He also stressed that the Leontiev case was not the cause of the ouster, just a catalyst. Indeed, Sukhodolsky’s chief of staff, Colonel Igor Kozyrev soon went and his personal team, who had come with him from Moscow, also resigned.

In part Sukhodolsky seems to have fallen foul of local politics. His predecessor at Suvorovsky Prospekt, Lt. General (Police) Vladislav Piotrovsky, held the position for four years and confidently expected to retain it through the compulsory review process created by Medvedev’s police reforms. However, questions about his personal finances — which to many seems to be code for suspicions of corruption or embezzlement — meant that he was unexpectedly dismissed with prejudice. He formally resigned, but instead of accepting that, Medvedev chose publicly to remove him.

Piotrovsky had lobbied for his deputy, Umnov, to succeed him. Instead, the position went to Sukhodolsky, who until then had held the position of First Deputy Interior Minister. This was widely seen as bringing in an outsider — a ‘Muscovite’ — to sweep the St Petersburg police clean, but was probably more a way to lever him out of the central MVD apparatus. Technically a demotion for Sukhodolsky, it was a face-saving alternative to an outright dismissal or early retirement necessitated by the general overhaul of the MVD’s deputy ministers and more to the point, as I’ll discuss below, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev’s enmity. In this way, he already came to the city facing the inevitable resentment of a proud force resenting the imposition of an interloper.

It did not help that Umnov was held in high regard within the St Petersburg GUVD as a composed and dedicated professional, while Sukhodolsky behaved in the high-handed manner that was admittedly par for the course for deputy ministers in Moscow but much less acceptable on Suvorovsky Prospekt. He brought in his own team, even his own press officer — in part hence Medvedev’s snide comment about PR — and seemed to make little effort to build positive relations with Umnov or the force as a whole.

Had Sukhodolsky proved to be an especially effective head of the force, then his manner and origins might have mattered less, but the generally held view was that he was not. Vinnichenko made a point of noting that despite a fall in overall crime rates, rapes and drug-related crimes were up, for example.

So it could simply be seen as the inevitable, even necessary removal of an officer whose career was already on the wane, who had proved unequal to the demands of his job and had lost the support of his command. And that might well largely account for Sukhodolsky’s dismissal. But there are a few anomalies.

Sukhodolsky himself has publicly connected his ouster with political “games” and a campaign to demonize him and there is some basis for this. It is striking, for example, that while he dealt quickly and severely with those implicated in the Leontiev killing yet faced a serious investigation, his Moscow counterpart Major General (Police) Vladimir Kolokoltsev passed unscathed through the aftermath of the Domodedovo terrorist attack and the murder of a snowplow driver by a police officer for denting his car. Kolokoltsev’s predecessor, Pronin, was sacked after the Evsyukov case — but was then rewarded with a Moscow City Hall position. If Sukhodolsky was sacked because of the Leontiev case, then why is the investigation continuing and why not wait until it was complete?

If he had to go because of the low esteem in which he was held by his officers, should this be considered a precedent? There are a number of other local police commanders roundly disliked, even despised by their peers and subordinates. If they conspire and agitate, will they be rewarded with a presidential decree replacing the object of their complaints? It hardly seems likely that the MVD is becoming such a democratic institution. Of course no commander can lead if his force is truly opposed to him, but likewise does such a commander deserve public humiliation? Did it really take dozens of armed OMON to get him out of his office?

The answer may like in central MVD politics. Rashid Nurgaliev is hardly the most popular figure within the MVD himself and there were those who were touting Sukhodolsky as a possible post-election replacement. Indeed, although he himself publicly dissociated himself from any such ambitions, he did so elliptically and with less conviction than he might (he tended to use such vague expressions as “the country’s leadership will decide who leads”). Indeed, as a man with a robust ego, he might well have harbored such ambitions himself, especially as he appears to have believed that Nurgaliev might be removed after the presidential elections.

It is a dangerous thing to be touted as the next Interior Minister when the incumbent has no plans to move on. Former US ambassador Beyrle rightly characterized Nurgeliev as not being “within the ‘inner circle’ of Kremlin decision-making” but he has proven to be a surprisingly capable Kremlin infighter, perhaps precisely because he seems not to threaten any of the heavier-hitters. His overhaul of the deputy ministers in part reflected an attempt to assert his control over the MVD and the assertive Sukhodolsky represented a particular thorn in his side. According to some accounts, Nurgaliev didn’t even know about his original appointment as a deputy minister in 2005 until after the fact, and whether or not this detail is true, he does seem to have been pushed there by Putin or those close to him regardless of the minister’s views. It was only after Medvedev had asserted or been granted a greater authority over the MVD that Nurgaliev could move against his nemesis, and even then he could not simply eject him, but had to offer him a position in Peter. So the bad blood has a distinct history, and this may have been Nurgaliev nudging Sukhodolsky further down the slope to political oblivion, especially as he himself seemed so determined to provide justifications for his ouster. For all I know — and this is pure speculation — the patient Umnov was encouraged to allow his cohorts to paint him as the king in waiting and stir up dissent. However, it is certainly interesting that the investigation into the St Petersburg police was driven by Deputy Interior Minister Smirnov, who is probably Nurgaliev’s closest and, I’ve been told, most ruthless subordinate.

Why make such a brazen move, or perhaps more to the point, why now? I suspect that it may reflect the uncertainty now gripping Russian politics in general and the politics of the siloviki in particular. Nurgaliev’s future is not guaranteed and he may have decided best to eliminate a potential successor preemptively. However, it may also reflect a degree of a lack of tight control over the siloviki. Medvedev appears disgruntled, possibly anticipating that Putin will renege on his invitation to the prime ministership, while Putin is concerned with dealing with the unexpected explosion of middle-class protest. In such circumstances, a minister of police who knows that his forces are indispensable may feel that he has a certain carte blanche, even to oust one of Putin’s (former, at least) clients. I don’t want to seem to be making Sukhodolsky into a martyr; he seems to have mishandled his relations with the St Petersburg force from the first, and would probably have shown Nurgaliev no greater mercy had the tables been turned. But Nurgaliev’s naked and brutal power play, something at odds with the past etiquette of silovik relations, does suggest that there is conflict and a breakdown of old concordats behind the scenes. It may also come back to haunt Nurgaliev. He has not emerged with much credit from the affair, and it may prove foolish to oust Putin’s appointee. Breaking the old rules of silovik etiquette may also prove a dangerous precedent.

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