An emergency situation for Sergei Shoigu

1920px-Sergey_Shoygu_-_InnovationDay2013part1-37 Vitaly V Kuzmin.jpg

Until the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was one of the most influential politicians in Russia. Not any more. на русском языке

Oleg Kashin
25 July 2014

The profession of political analyst exists in Russia, as it does in other countries. As a rule, they bear no responsibility for their predictions and utterances; where there is limited access to information, however, any political decision is fraught with uncertainties, and here the political analyst is invaluable, because he will always have a view. This view can be based on anything, though more often than not it will be overtaken by the latest events. But this is forgotten in the rush of fresh political developments; and the political expert moves on to commenting on them. 

In recent months, Russian political commentators have devoted themselves to opining on the situation in Ukraine, and asking questions related to Russia's future position in the world. Will it once more become the ‘evil empire’? Will the American and European sanctions have any impact on living standards for Russians?

Traditional issues dealt with by political commentators may have taken a back seat during these months, but the very dramatic events in Ukraine, culminating in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing, have enabled us to make a very important conclusion relating to Russian domestic politics. At this very moment, while the Netherlands are burying the first of their passengers from flight MH17, the brilliant political career of the brightest of Vladimir Putin's potential successors lies in shreds.

Sergei Shoigu

That man is Sergei Shoigu, the current Defence Minister, veteran of Russian politics, and one of the most popular Russian politicians of the last 20 years, if not more. He is the only Russian minister who has been in the government since Soviet times (1990) without a break. It is no exaggeration to say that he was predestined to have a brilliant career, from infancy. Shoigu comes from Tuva, possibly the strangest place in Russia. He himself likes to compare it to Tibet; by Russian standards it is not even Tibet, but even more mysterious. 

Tuva was a Chinese province, which became part of the Russian Empire after the fall of the Qing dynasty, on the eve of the First World War. After the Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of tsarist Russia, it became an independent state and, like its neighbour, Mongolia, a satellite of Moscow: local Bolsheviks proclaimed Soviet power and the building of socialism in the country, but given the destitute agrarian economy, this was a mere formality. Even under the Soviets, Tuva remained a feudal country, ruled over by influential families who had sworn loyalty to the Bolsheviks as easily as they had, not long before, to the Russian tsar. In 1941, Tuva was the first Asian state to declare war on Nazi Germany, though the state itself did not survive until the victory in 1945. After yet another wave of typical Soviet repressions, there were almost no local communists left in Tuva to take the place in government of the people who had disappeared in the mass arrests, so in 1944 Stalin incorporated Tuva into the Soviet Union. 

Nothing changed much in the country and, indeed, the president of the independent country of Tuva, Salchak Toka, remained in post as head of the region within the USSR right up until his death in 1973. 

Shoigu and Putin in camouflage gear in a small fishing boat.

Kremlin-watchers have long considered Sergei Shoigu a possible successor to Vladimir Putin. CC Kremlin.ru

Sergei Shoigu's father, Kozhuget, came from an influential Tuvan family and was one of Toka's closest associates. He held high office in the government of Soviet Tuva and the local branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It is said that at the end of the 1960s, Kozhuget Shoigu became friendly with the future Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was responsible, as was Shoigu senior, for construction in his region. In this way Sergei Shoigu had known his future Kremlin patron since he was a child.

Whether this is true or not, Sergei Shoigu followed the Soviet tradition by spending several years working in construction in Tuva and the neighbouring regions of Siberia. He then started his rapid ascent up the career ladder within the Communist Party. By the age of 33 he was second secretary of the CP city committee in Abakan, capital of neigbouring Khakassiya. He moved to the regional committee in the Krasnoyarsk krai [Russian for territory] of which Tuva was part. Had it not been for perestroika, Shoigu would probably have become first secretary of the regional committee in Tuva. But in 1990, Boris Yeltsin, who had become leader of the Russian government when the country was still part of the USSR, invited the son of his friend to come and work in Moscow. 

A personal army

The organisation that Shoigu was tasked with setting up was initially called the 'Russian Rescue Corps'; later it was renamed the Ministry for Emergency Situations. Formally, it existed to organise rescue and reconstruction work after natural disasters and catastrophes, but in fact Shoigu set up another uniformed ministry in addition to the existing army, security services and police. It was small, mobile, accountable, and loyal, to him personally. One might have wondered why a rescuer dragging victims out from under ruined buildings after, say, an earthquake would need a Kalashnikov. But from the very beginning Shoigu insisted that his rescuers had to be armed, have military ranks and be subject to military discipline under his command. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this was Sergei Shoigu's personal army; in the autumn of 1993 Boris Yeltsin could see that this army was just what he needed. During the armed conflict between Yeltsin's supporters and his opponents in parliament, the Russian army adopted a wait-and-see approach. Defence Minister Pavel Grachov declared his loyalty to Yeltsin, but was in no hurry to use force against the armed opposition. When there was a proposal to storm the parliament building, Grachov asked Yeltsin for the order in writing, so that if the plan were to fail, it would be the president who bore the responsibility. Shoigu, however, did not ask for any orders in writing: his loyal rescuers defended the Moscow mayor's office, which was also loyal to Yeltsin, and handed out weapons from the ministry arsenal to volunteers at a rally in support of Yeltsin. 

It was probably this period, which laid the grounds for the future success of the Ministry for Emergency Situations. By the end of the 1990s, the Ministry had more generals than the army and the security services. Shoigu himself had become a general, even though he had never served in the army. The rescue units in the ministry even included operational aircraft; the TV news made him the chief national superhero. Any man-made disaster, flood, earthquake or fire turned him into the hero of the hour: he appeared in front of the TV cameras and personally oversaw the rescue work of his staff. Social surveys regularly put Shoigu at the top of the list of ministers enjoying the trust of the Russian people. Prime ministers retired, governments changed, some even went to prison; Shoigu remained in post and was unfailingly popular.

The people's love for him was, of course, not unconnected with official propaganda, which carefully nourished his image as the heroic super-minister of rescuers. The questions that might have been put to the Ministry after every serious disaster, such as why the brunt of the work had been undertaken by local volunteers unconnected with the Ministry (as happened at the time of the huge forest fires in 2010), were ignored. 

The succession crisis

His popularity was really useful for the Kremlin during the 1999 political crisis: the aged President Yeltsin had lost not only his popularity, but also his health, and was preparing to hand over the reins to his chosen successor, the almost unknown Vladimir Putin. There was open opposition to this move from a very dissatisfied group of nomenklatura personalities headed by ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. Most of the regional leaders took the side of Primakov and Luzhkov: they had created their party and were ready to claim victory in the election, whereas Yeltsin had no political support at all.

A rebel in a balaclava stands by a ruined piece of MH17.

Experts are divided the extent of Russia's involvement in Ukraine, but the international community has already made judgements.

The Kremlin created this party from scratch. It may have been a virtual party, existing only in the TV news space, but the TV had already become the source of power in Russia, so this was not a problem for the Kremlin. What was much more dangerous was that all the key high-profile politicians in Moscow and the regions supported Primakov and Luzhkov. Then, with a flourish, Yeltsin produced his secret trump card – Shoigu. It was he who became the leader of the new party 'Unity', which would later swallow up Luzhkov and Primakov's party and become 'United Russia', the ruling party of the Putin regime. This party triumphed at the election and laid the foundation for Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency four months later. 

Loyalties and medals

During the Putin presidency, Sergei Shoigu was top of the ratings in all social surveys, and with the years acquired ever more medals, which made him look rather like a Latin American military dictator. Most recently, after the annexation of Crimea, he was given the highest award in Russia, Andrew the First-Called with swords. It was the first time ever: no one else in Russia has been given this order. For the last two years Shoigu has been Defence Minister, but the Emergency Ministry was still his fiefdom and he chose the new minister, his friend and deputy for many years Vladimir Puchkov. In the interval between the two ministries he found the time to be governor of the Moscow region for six months; when he left that post he also chose his successor, Andrei Vorobyov, the son of friends from his time in Siberia. In handing out jobs, Sergei Shoigu has preserved his loyalty to Tuva feudal traditions.

On 9 May, he took the military parade on Red Square, showing off his new medal to the TV cameras. He is 58 years old, with many career years ahead of him. What sort of future can a Defence Minister expect? Above him there is only the prime minister and the president, so it was hardly suprising that political experts regularly wrote that Shoigu could be appointed to replace the unpopular prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev; and that when Putin does actually decide to retire, he will leave Sergei Shoigu in his place, as once Boris Yeltsin left Putin himself. 

Disaster strikes

Then came the setback. The extent to which the Russian regular army has taken part in military actions in South-eastern Ukraine can be disputed, but even if it is minimal, the Defence Minister will be held personally responsible for it. The shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing turns military support for the separatists into military support for terrorists. Shoigu's press service can make as many joking attempts as they like to deflect attention from the criminal charges being brought against him in Ukraine for aiding and abetting terrorists, but this is no joking matter. In a few days, the name of the Russian Defence Minister will appear on the Interpol database and, even if the Russians manage to challenge the procedure, Shoigu will find it very difficult to rid himself of the label of the protector of the terrorists who allegedly brought down the plane. 

The former Tuvan crown prince has a biography, which would make rich pickings for Russian domestic consumption, but for the rest of the world it will mean little. The sole international event in Shoigu's career is the Ukrainian crisis, beginning with Crimea and ending with the Boeing. With such a blot on his copybook he will become neither prime minister nor president. With this biography all he can do is give interviews to historians on the subject of 'It wasn't my fault', write his memoirs and spend time with his grandchildren. Official visits to Brussels or Washington, and specially Kyiv, are off the cards. 

This is why all political analysts should be advised to strike Shoigu's name off the list of potential Putin successors. That name is no longer on the list.   

Image four: (c) RIA Novosti/Andrei Stenin

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