Research - 04.07.2024 - 11:10 

Why Vladimir Putin makes relatives and friends top officials: an interview with HSG corruption expert Elena Denisova-Schmidt

Since his re-election, Russian President Vladimir Putin has filled several important state posts with relatives or friends. In this way, Putin wants to guarantee that he and his allies remain close to power and financial resources, says HSG Privatdozentin Elena Denisova-Schmidt in an interview. She researches corruption and informal practices in Russia and Ukraine. 

Caption: The Kremlin, seat of the Russian government.


Vladimir Putin has replaced various high-ranking officials with relatives and associates in recent months. Why is this happening right now? 

Elena Denisova-SchmidtIt is common for key positions to be replaced after Russian presidential elections. This time, however, it is striking that many children of Putin's closest confidants and even from his immediate family have been promoted. A few examples of this: Putin's niece Anna Tsivilyova (52) was appointed deputy defense minister, her husband the new energy minister. Dmitry Patrushev (46) is the new deputy prime minister. He is the son of Nikolay Patrushev, a university friend of the President. The new chairman of the Accounts Chamber is Boris Kovalchuk (46) - he is the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, a successful businessman and close confidant of Putin.

What are Putin's goals?

He wants to guarantee that these influential families will continue to have access to power and financial resources when Putin or his political allies are no longer alive. We must not forget that at 71, Putin is at a ripe old age, at least by Russian standards. The life expectancy for Russian men in 2023 was just 66 years. Moreover, the reorganization could be a sign that these areas - defence, energy, public finances - are particularly important to Putin. 

Is there any discussion among the Russian public about these appointments?

No, because access to media critical of the government has become difficult in the last two years. Most people therefore don't know how the new top officials relate to each other or to Putin. The Russian state is also trying to keep these family ties as secret as possible. Putin, for example, distances himself from his two adult daughters. They are both businesswomen and appeared at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg this year. In addition, most people in Russia have other concerns at the moment. For example, they fear a renewed partial mobilization due to the war in Ukraine, they are worried about the increase in terrorist attacks at home or they are simply struggling with economic problems. 

What significance does nepotism - the favoring of relatives or friends - have in Russia's history and society?

Basically, such practices have a long history in Russia. However, the current extent of this nepotism in high government circles is massive. There are also other reasons for the preference given to friends and relatives in professional life in Russia. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union built up many so-called monotowns. These are characterized by a single production plant. This means that practically all residents work in the same place - so they already know each other from their social lives before they start working together. Such informal relationships don't have to be all bad, however. People who know someone privately are also better able to assess what their strengths and weaknesses are in their working life. 

One focus of your research is informal practices in Russia and Ukraine. What are informal practices and how important do you think they are?

Informal means when something happens outside of a formal framework such as a protocol, an official channel or a law. It describes a procedure by which things are done quickly and easily. However, informal does not necessarily mean illegal. Generally speaking - and this does not only apply to Eastern Europe and Russia - the importance of informal practices is quite high. Switzerland, for example, receives good marks in Transparency International's corruption measurements, yet family and other relationships play an important role in politics and business in this small-scale country. Or the so-called "old boy network" in the UK: There, graduates from a few elite universities make up a large proportion of the country's managers. 

How do you research informal practices that take place in secret?

I travelled to Russia and Ukraine for years to do this. I conducted my research in companies and universities. For example, I conducted interviews with individuals and groups, and also carried out experiments and observations. During the pandemic, these trips became more difficult and since the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, they have become impossible. Before the war, some Russian universities had a strong international focus, for example in terms of students and research. That has all come to a standstill. I can't continue the joint research projects with Russian colleagues, also so as not to jeopardize them in their home country. 

How do you perceive the political mood in Russia, especially with your insight into social and business backgrounds?

Putin's narrative that Russia is waging a proxy war against the USA and NATO in Ukraine is wide-spread. Expressing different opinions is also dangerous. The current system is therefore well established. The appointment of relatives and friends to key positions naturally contributes to this. 

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