MOSCOW, Nov 6 – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday fired his defence 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 defence 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 defence ministry holding company.
“Taking into consideration the situation around the defence ministry I have made a decision to relieve defence 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 defence minister when he was appointed in 2007.
His lack of military credentials and controversial military reform programme earned him derision in the defence 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 defence 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.”