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Powerful, but not omnipotent Special correspondent Andrey Pertsev answers all of your questions about Russia’s Presidential Executive Office

Source: Meduza
Igor Ivanko / Kommersant

In Russia, everyone is used to the fact the government’s position on acute political, social, and even cultural issues doesn’t come from the departments that are supposed to be responsible for these affairs. The Kremlin always has the last word. Oftentimes this doesn’t mean President Vladimir Putin himself, but rather representatives from his Presidential Executive Office. To get a fuller understanding of what Putin’s administration does, we asked “Meduza” political correspondent Andrey Pertsev to break down the what exactly the Presidential Executive Office is, the scope of its formal (and informal) responsibilities, and the limits of its influence over what happens in Russia.

What do references to the ‘Kremlin’ actually mean?

Russian political reporters often refer to the “Kremlin” as shorthand for the Presidential Executive Office of Russia (also referred to as the Presidential Administration of Russia, which in Russian is shortened to the acronym “AP”). The Moscow Kremlin became the official residence of the country’s top leadership almost immediately after the October Revolution in 1917. And the Russian Federation continued this tradition after the Soviet Union collapsed; the Kremlin Senate houses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office.

The Presidential Executive Office itself is actually located in a complex of buildings in another part of town: in Staraya Square in the eastern part of Moscow’s Kitay Gorod neighborhood. As a former official from the Presidential Executive Office recalled in conversation with Meduza, the AP’s offices used to be located inside the Kremlin’s so-called “14th building.” When this building was demolished, it moved to Number Four Staraya Square.

So what is the Presidential Executive Office?

The Presidential Executive Office of Russia was established under Boris Yeltsin in 1991. However, the provisions governing its work didn’t come out until 1993. An updated version of these regulations from 1996 states that the AP “creates the conditions” for the president to determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy, resolve personnel issues, and ensure the “coordinated functioning” of bodies of power. This range of responsibilities is also outlined in the current regulations on the presidential administration, which date back to 2004. These also state that the AP “exercises control” over the implementation of the president’s decision.

In addition, the Presidential Executive Office is responsible for preparing the head of state’s annual address and the draft laws the president brings to parliament, “supporting interaction with political parties,” collecting and analyzing information “on socio-economic, political, and legal processes in the country and abroad,” as well as “organizing scientific research work, including with the involvement of experts.”

How powerful is it?

Formally, the Presidential Executive Office is really just the head of state’s functioning office. However, the more powers the Russian president possesses personally — either formally or informally — the more influential the AP becomes.

Several Meduza sources working in or close to people in the presidential administration claim that the AP became a “nerve center” with a developed internal political bloc sometime between the early and mid-2000s. This took place under the influence of then-First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, who created a political system managed directly from within the Kremlin. Due to Putin’s personal popularity, the ruling party, United Russia, achieved great results during parliamentary elections (Putin was the party’s chairman from 2008–2012 and was then replaced by Dmitry Medvedev). Under unspoken rules, systemic opposition parties (for example the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party) were also required to consult with the AP — for example, when planning candidate nominations. 

Although Surkov’s role in governing Russian politics was a well-known secret, the first person to speak about it publicly was businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who, ahead of the 2011 parliamentary elections, was leading the party Pravoye Delo (Right Cause). Prokhorov called Vladislav Surkov the “main puppet master of the political process” and accused him of attempting to influence the formation of party lists.

Under Surkov’s successor, First Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin, the administration’s influence on systemic opposition parties only increased. Representatives from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and A Just Russia began running as candidates in gubernatorial elections (which were partially reintroduced in Russia in 2012). Indeed, these candidates were selected within the AP. At the same time, big businesses could make agreements with Putin directly on appointing their proteges as governors. 

The presidential administration also holds sway over youth policy and cooperation with the civil society activists loyal to the authorities; this is overseen by its public projects department under the leadership of Sergey Novikov, a long-time ally of the current First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. 

However, the Presidential Executive Office’s near unlimited power in the public policy sphere doesn’t mean that it’s really omnipotent. For example, the AP doesn’t run the government and isn’t involved in selecting candidates for cabinet. Many key decisions on the economy and finance, and regarding law enforcement agencies, are made during meetings of the Security Council. It’s helpful to imagine the Security Council, which includes a number of the country’s key figures, as a kind of board of directors; an analogy that once again makes the AP a managing office.

Who works in the AP?

The Presidential Executive Office is made up of about 20 departments, including the Security Council Office, the Presidential Advisers’ Office, and the Presidential Chancellery. The current Chief of Staff is Anton Vaino and there are two First Deputy Chiefs of Staff, Sergey Kiriyenko and Alexey Gromov. The presidential envoys to the federal districts, the State Duma, the Federation Council, and the Constitutional Court are also part of Putin’s administration.

The AP also has nine presidential aides on staff (three of whom also head departments), who are responsible for preparing proposals and analysis for the president regarding the areas that they oversee. Most often, these aides are former high-profile officials. For example, among the current presidential aides are former Transport Minister Igor Levitin, former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, and former Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin. Andrey Belousov, who served as Russia’s Economic Development Minister from 2012 until 2013, was Putin’s aide for nearly seven years — he then returned to the cabinet as First Deputy Prime Minister. 

Chief of Staff Anton Vaino (right) is secretly considered the first among equals among his deputies. First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko (left) personally offers the president solutions to domestic political issues.
Alexey Nikolsky / Kremlin Press Service / TASS / VIDA Press

In addition, the president has six advisers, including the Chairman of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, Valery Fadeev. Children’s Rights Commissioner Anna Kuznetsova is also part of the AP, along with Business Ombudsman Boris Titov, and the Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology, and Transport, Sergey Ivanov. 

Figures occupying public positions — such as the head of the Human Rights Council and the Children’s Rights Commissioner — have become noticeably more conservative and loyal to the authorities in recent years. 

Who has the most influence?

The Presidential Executive Office has a formal hierarchy subordinate to its Chief of Staff, however, a source close to the administration describes Anton Vaino as the “first among equals.” “It was always like this. Yes, the chief of the AP is the leader but, in effect, everything is tied to the president himself. The AP’s deputy chiefs can make independent decisions within their competences,” explains a former Kremlin official. “Yes, the short-list of candidates for governor goes through the domestic policy department, then through the first deputy head of politics, and then is agreed upon with the chief. But without the approval of the politics deputy, the chief can’t carry out his own decision, for example, to ‘push’ a senator. The relevant deputy can outmaneuver the decision, he has access to the president.” 

According to the source, in reality, the status and influence of each presidential aide and adviser depends on their individual relationship with Putin. “If a person has direct access to the president [and] the opportunity to enter the cabinet at his request at any time, [whether] they’re an adviser or an aide isn’t so important.” 

What is its role in foreign policy?

The AP has a Foreign Policy Directorate, which is not to be confused with Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. According to Meduza’s Kremlin source, presidential aide Yuri Ushakov is in charge of the AP’s foreign policy department. “The directorate and Ushakov deal with issues that concern Putin directly. The organization of his visits, the organization of forums involving the president within Russia. The Foreign Affairs Ministry [handles] routine matters — regular meetings of international bodies, some routine statements. Although, for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speeches are still sent to the AP,” the source explained. 

Does the AP control media attacks on the opposition? 

Pro-Kremlin propaganda on television and from major, state-owned media outlets is carried out by subordinates under First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov. Several sources told Meduza that Gromov holds weekly meetings with the heads of the press services at key government agencies, whose reports in turn act as sources for the rest of the news media. During these briefings, Gromov outlines the main topics for the week ahead and provides guidance on how to present the government’s agenda “correctly.” 

“When it comes to statements about important news events that arise unexpectedly, press service directors coordinate directly with [the head of the presidential administration’s public relations and communications department Alexander] Smirnov or even with Gromov personally,” Meduza’s source said. Gromov holds similar meetings with the heads of major traditional media outlets. “If there’s an urgent, topical issue he can call some editor-in-chief personally and he often does so,” a source close to the AP said.

On the other hand, attacks on the opposition on social networks and messaging platforms are the sphere of the AP’s domestic policy bloc under the leadership of First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. However, Gromov also has groups (“nets”) of Telegram channels that are loyal to him

Do ‘Kremlin’ opinions come from Putin or the AP?

Kremlin officials do not and cannot have a coordinated view on all issues. Each bloc and department has its own area of responsibility that it cannot go beyond. “For example, Vyacheslav Volodin, was he was the AP’s first deputy chief and domestic policy curator, could have had his own views — for example, on policy regarding Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics of Donbas. But Vladislav Surkov oversaw this area as a presidential aide, so Volodin couldn’t interfere,” a Meduza source who worked in the AP in the early 2010s explained.

In reporting on Russia, the phrase “the Kremlin thinks” is more or less a journalistic cliché. Officials from the president’s office often share their own views, which don’t necessarily reflect a position agreed upon with the entire AP or Putin himself. “Often in some of his answers to journalists’ questions Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov also says that this is his personal opinion,” Meduza’s source underscored. 

Is there political in-fighting?

Russian media and Telegram channels often uses the phrase “tower wars” to describe political in-fighting among influential groups with the Putin administration. You’ll also hear people say “the Kremlin has many towers,” referring to the number of rival groups. For example, it’s believed that the “Kovalchuk group” opposes the “Rotenberg group,” whereas the FSB doesn’t get along so well with the Interior Ministry. These rival groups can compete for spheres of influence, positions in the federal government, and for the governorships of major regions. Sometimes, traces of these struggles come into public view.

However, there’s an informal understanding that Kremlin officials shouldn’t get involved in lobbying battles themselves and are required to stay above these conflicts — regardless of the fact that they might be close to one of the groups involved (for example, Sergey Kiriyenko is considered closed to the “Kovalchuk group”). “In any case, all of [the Kremlin’s] decisions on serious issues are collegial and coordinated. The final decision is up to the president, but the agreed upon point of view goes to him for approval,” Meduza’s Kremlin source explained.

Nevertheless, conflicts can emerge among officials with overlapping spheres of influence. For example, media curator/First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov has always had a tense relationship with the AP’s domestic policy curators, since the media also falls within the domestic policy bloc’s area of responsibility.

For a long time, there was also covert competition between Sergey Kiriyenko and State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who didn’t want to hand over the levers of political influence — first and foremost, United Russia — to Kiriyenko completely. The fight ended predictably with Volodin’s people leaving key posts within the ruling party. The Kremlin’s number one rule worked: each member of the “power vertical” handles the sphere that Vladimir Putin has set out for them. 

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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Edited by Pyotr Lokhov

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart