MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 6 fired his defense minister over a corruption scandal, the most dramatic change to the government since he returned for a third Kremlin term amid rising discontent.
Putin replaced Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov — who had been implementing an unpopular but Kremlin-backed military reform — with Moscow region governor and former emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu.
Analysts said that the sacking of a top official who had enjoyed Putin’s unconditional support was aimed at instilling fear in the elites as the Russian strongman struggles with the worst political crisis of his almost 13-year rule.
Putin said Serdyukov, one of three people in Russia with access to nuclear launch codes, had been relieved of his duties so that a thorough investigation can proceed into a suspected $100 million property scam at a defense ministry holding company.
“Taking into consideration the situation around the defense ministry I have made a decision to relieve Defense Minister Serdyukov of his post in order to create conditions for an objective investigation of all the issues,” Putin said in televised remarks.
A former furniture salesman who rose to head the Russian tax authority, Serdyukov became the first civilian to serve as post-Soviet Russia’s defense minister when he was appointed in 2007.
His lack of military credentials and controversial military reform program earned him derision in the defense ministry as he tried to push through the army overhaul.
In the past, Putin had repeatedly resisted calls from within the military for Serdyukov to leave his post, even though he is believed to have made powerful enemies in the government and the Kremlin administration.
Serdyukov is the son-in-law of Viktor Zubkov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and a long-time Putin ally.
“There are no indispensable people for Putin,” a defense ministry source told AFP, adding that the military greeted Serdyukov’s sacking with “moderate joy.”
“This decision is very much in the spirit of Stalin,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a military commentator for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told AFP. “You need to keep the elites in fear.”
“Putin has decided to turn Serdyukov into an example of the fight against ‘elite’ corruption,” he added, noting he did not rule out that Serdyukov would be arrested and eventually prosecuted.
The Interfax news agency reported, citing the spokesman for the influential Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, that Serdyukov might be questioned as part of the ongoing probe.
Serdyukov’s sacking came on the heels of a probe into a defense ministry holding company and reports that Serdyukov had left his wife for a woman at his ministry.
Russian investigators had on Oct. 25 searched the offices of defense ministry holding company Rosoboronservis, in a highly unusual move after opening a criminal probe into a suspected $100 million property scam.
Serdyukov at the time was summoned for a meeting with Putin, which raised immediate questions about his future.
Compounding the embarrassment for Serdyukov was the fact that when investigators arrived at the home of one of the suspects last month, they found none other than the defense chief himself, the pro-Kremlin lifenews.ru website reported.
The 33-year-old woman, the former head of the defense ministry’s property department Yevgenia Vasilyeva, was living in a luxurious apartment and had an expensive collection of jewels, which security forces confiscated.
The defense minister’s sacking comes as the government is planning to dramatically ramp up military spending that experts say will come at the expense of financing education and medical care.
Putin said the new minister should be able to implement “grandiose plans to rearm the army and the fleet that have been put forward.”
“You can be that person,” Putin told Shoigu.
Shoigu is seen as one of Putin’s closest friends and allies, serving as emergency situations minister from 1994-2012. He was appointed to the key job of Moscow region governor only this year.