Quick Thoughts on Yakunin’s move from RZhD

“A hat goes with the job, incidentally”

So Vladimir Yakunin, the obscenely rich and, needless to say, deeply pious head of Russian Railways (RZhD), has stepped down and will now take the position of the Federal Council representative for Kaliningrad, an essentially honorific position. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but here are a few interpretations:

He fell from grace. Putin is good to his friends, and Yakunin has certainly been both personally close to the president and a great beneficiary of that closeness. However, despite signs in the past that there were those trying to claw him down (like the hoax dismissal in 2013), there have been no outward signs of his losing favour and frankly, Putin does tend to be very loyal to that tiny circle of people he genuinely sees as his friends and allies. I find this hard to believe. Yes, he’s built himself a ridiculously opulent mansion – who hasn’t? There’s a scandal brewing over the arrest on corruption charges of his friend, the former head of Latvian Railways – do we think Putin cares? You really need to do something quite extraordinary to lose Putin’s friendship once you’ve won it, and there hasn’t been any whisper of this.

Time for the Technocrats. Yakunin started well at RZhD, but not only did his modernising energies wane over time, they depended on spending money on track, rolling stock and fixed facility reconstruction that required substantial government subsidy. Maybe, as Leonid Bershidsky has suggested, this represents a grudging realisation on the part of the Kremlin that it cannot afford to featherbed all its friends and loss-making industries and needs to bring in people who will run the economy more efficiently? Maybe; his successor, former deputy transport minister Oleg Belozerov seems a pretty low-key figure and is presumably a relatively competent technocrat. He has a certain St Petersburg connection but no particular evidence of powerful patrons or Putin connections (RBK says he’s close to the mighty Rotenbergs, but that remains to be seen). No real scandals appear to dog him (although he was for a while in charge of road building, an industry with a distinct reputation for corruption and embezzlement), nor great triumphs. We’ll see if he is a place holder, or whether he brings an axe or a new broom to RZhD. More generally, though, if Yakunin has been dismissed as part of a general professionalisation and cleansing of the economic elite that will be a Very Very Big Deal Indeed and I have yet to see enough evidence of this to start getting excited. The day Sechin goes, now that will mean something…

He wants to spend more time with his money. Yakunin’s net worth is unclear, but his official salary was $15 million and it might be reasonable to assume he has as much money as he needs. we have tended to assume that he was pushed rather jumped, but it could be that he fancies an easier life and maybe also the possibility of power as a Kremlin insider without the responsibility of managing a huge national railway system. A senatorial seat is not trivial: it gives him a platform, honourifics and, by the by, immunity from prosecution…

Stepping stone. What if this is part of a wider political game plan? Might Yakunin – a conservative Orthodox ex-spook from St Petersburg – be a potential successor for another conservative Orthodox ex-spook from St Petersburg? I’d be surprised if VVP is yet thinking of a successor in any direct way, but even if just as an ally then it might be easier to make Yakunin, say, prime minister or some other senior political position after a stint in the legislature rather than directly from RZhD.

At present, it is too soon to say. I’d like to think this marked the long-long-overdue start of a cleansing of the elite, but I don’t have any reason to believe it. I suspect it was just time for a change, and that it is too soon to write Yakunin (who is a formidable figure, we most recognise) out of the picture.

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  1. 8/21 Weekly Roundup | The Elicitor

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