Russia is in the middle of a blazing tabloid-style scandal that features a bejeweled blonde, a luxury love nest, and an alleged scam worth more than $200 million.
But that’s not where some Kremlin watchers are putting their attention. They see the scandal as just the visible fall-out from a vicious back-room fight among Russia’s ruling elite.
The real question is whether the struggle may have forced President Vladimir Putin to sack a loyal ally, his former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Scandal Rocks Elite
The scandal has been brewing since early fall, with leaked reports about an investigation into the sale of some military real estate to private companies.
Officials of a state-controlled company allegedly sold the land to their cronies at rock-bottom prices, then collected big kickbacks when the property was resold to developers.
It was clear from the leaks that the investigation was rapidly climbing to the very top of the Russian Defense Ministry, until at last, President Putin felt compelled to act. Early in November, he announced he was firing Serdyukov.
As defense minister, Serdyukov was widely believed to have Putin’s support, especially since he was carrying out a controversial plan to modernize Russia’s hide-bound military.
But it wasn’t long before steamy details began to emerge on state-controlled TV. Before dawn one morning, investigators raided the 13-room apartment of Yevgenia Vasilyeva, the former head of the property department at the Defense Ministry. TV channels gleefully pointed out that Serdyukov was at the apartment with Vasilyeva at the time of the raid.
They also pointed out that Vasilyeva is blonde, 33, and fond of sparkly dresses, while Serdyukov, 50, is portly and married to another woman.
It didn’t help their cause that investigators also found hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash, jewelry, and antiques in the apartment.
Questions Over Motives
While this may have been enough to cost an American official his job, Russians tend to be more blase about such matters.
“Mr. Serdyukov conducted the normal life of Russian top official, and everybody in this country knows for sure that it cannot be a reason for firing,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst and editor at the Daily Journal in Moscow.
He says mere personal misconduct would not have cost Serdyukov his job, especially when Putin is known for his loyalty to top allies.
Serdyukov is a former furniture salesman from St. Petersburg, whose fortunes dramatically improved after he married the daughter of a very powerful Putin ally.
His father-in-law, Viktor Zuvkov, is a former prime minister and the current chairman of the Russian natural gas company, Gazprom.
That raised the possibility that Serdyukov’s fall was the revenge of an outraged father-in-law, but experts tend to discount that theory as well.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert and columnist at the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, points to recent revelations that Vasilyeva’s apartment had been planted with listening devices during the investigation.
Felgenhauer says the bugging of a defense minister is something that could only be ordered by people at the very top of the government.
“This is all about money and real estate and internal quarrels within the ruling top elite that can order the special services to begin a special operation against the defense minister,” Felgenhauer says.
An Unhappy Officer Corps
Serdyukov made himself unpopular with generals in the Russian military when he trimmed a notoriously top-heavy senior officer corps.
He earned the enmity of Russia’s entrenched defense industry by refusing to buy obsolete equipment.
But whether the infighting was about real estate or military contracts, Golts says that Putin was apparently unable to keep a lid on the quarrel.
In previous years, he says that Putin was able to keep state journalists and government officials from attacking his allies, but this time, Putin’s signals were ignored.
“It moves me to the conclusion that, now, these top bureaucrats began to play their own games, and began their fights without [the] permission of Mr. Putin,” Golts says.
Putin has since appointed a new defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who previously served as Moscow’s regional governor. Vasilyeva was placed under house arrest, charged with fraud. No charges have yet been brought against Serdyukov.
As the scandal plays out, analysts are asking what will happen to the government’s efforts to rebuild Russia’s military. It’s an issue that has been widely discussed and yet still unresolved since the Soviet breakup two decades ago.