Russia: Putin sacks defence minister after corruption probe

Is Vladimir Putin finally getting serious about corruption? The president on Tuesday dismissed defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov following an investigation into an alleged $95m fraud at his ministry.

The televised announcement was clearly designed to send a strong message about Putin’s intentions. Even if he limits his attentions to the defence ministry – as opposed to launching a wider clean-up campaign – it would be a huge undertaking. The military-industrial complex is among the least transparent and most inefficient sectors of the Russian economy. But Putin’s real intentions aren’t clear.

Putin named Sergei Shoigu (pictured), Moscow region governor, as the new minister in succession to Serdyukov, who was himself appointed in 2007 to reform the defence sector.

A former businessman and ex-head of the state tax service, Serdyukov earned the wrath of Russia’s generals by pushing through personnel cuts, including in the officer corps. Shoigu, a former general and former emergencies minister, may be much more to the military’s liking.

Putin said on television that Serdyukov’s dismissal would enable an “objective” investigation of the accusations which concern real estate transactions. Kommersant newspaper reported this month that Serdyukov faces questioning as a witness in the case which was first publicised last month.

On the face of it, sacking a hand-picked appointee is a powerful sign of the president’s determination. And if that determination turns into a real fight against corruption in the defence sector, that will be very good for Russia – and for foreign investors.

But Shoigu, with his close links to the officer corps, seems less than ideal as an instrument of change. At least some of his former colleagues will be hoping that they can recover some of the influence they lost under Serdyukov. While personnel has been cut, the overall defence budget has grown hugely, with salaries and equipment purchases rising. So, in cash terms, the arguments are more important than ever.

In the end, Serdyukov may simply have run out of political support. As the BBC reported he has made many enemies and even fell out with his own father-in-law, the former deputy prime minister Viktor Zubkov, a close Putin confidant.

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