Emilia Slabunova, the chairperson of the opposition party Yabloko, is asking Vladimir Putin to fire Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, for challenging anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny to a “duel.” Slabunova says Zolotov’s bizarre proposal “discredits the honor and dignity of Russian officers and is incompatible with his high-ranking position.”
In her appeal to the president, Slabunova also stresses that state officials have no right to threaten people with violent reprisals in response to allegations of corruption. The Yabloko chairwoman says Zolotov’s remarks — shared on YouTube and posted on the National Guard’s official website — constitute a murder threat, an abuse of authority, and extremism. She’s also reached out to Attorney General Yuri Chaika, asking him to open a criminal case against Zolotov.
On September 11, Viktor Zolotov released a video where he challenges Navalny to a fist fight, in retaliation for an investigative report about evidence of corruption in the National Guard’s food-supply procurement contracts. Researchers found that prices on basic foodstuffs nearly tripled after the agency’s only supplier became the “Friendship of the Peoples“ Meatpacking Plant LLC, which is owned by Boris Kantemirov, the former head of the Interior Ministry’s Central Archive of Internal Troops. Formed in 2016 by Vladimir Putin’s executive order, Russia’s National Guard was built primarily from staff and resources pulled from the Interior Ministry.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote an interesting interpretation for the Moscow Carnegie Center, where she argues that Zolotov’s oddly personal appeal actually criticizes the country’s authorities for allowing Navalny to operate as freely as he does. The National Guard positions itself as a rival to the Interior Ministry and FSB, Stanovaya says, and Zolotov is angry that they’ve allowed this “enemy of the state” to go about his business. Zolotov’s need to be so public shows that he’s lost some access to Putin, who simply has no time for granular domestic problems, except maybe for pension reforms, Stanovaya says.
In other words, Putin didn’t sanction Zolotov’s duel challenge; it was more likely an attempt to get his attention. What Zolotov likely hates most about Navalny’s anti-corruption work is that it tries to undermine Zolotov’s subordinates’ faith in him, potentially pulling the rug out from beneath his feet at “the critical moment,” which is especially upsetting because Zolotov has made a big play to be the Kremlin’s indispensable man when it comes to preventing a color revolution in Russia.
Meanwhile, Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, has weakened the influence of siloviki like Zolotov, when it comes to domestic political enemies. Stanovaya concludes by arguing that Zolotov’s challenge to Navalny demonstrates the “fragmentation of Putin’s circle,” where the need to adapt to a “harsher reality” has people looking out for themselves, not thinking of the collective.
In a (paywalled) article at Republic on September 12, columnist Oleg Kashin also argued that Zolotov’s public challenge betrays his insecurities as the head of a relatively new policing agency. “He’s not from their social class. He’s an outsider, and this is his fundamental [psychological] complex,” Kashin wrote, claiming that Zolotov’s gruff fenya (gangster talk) was crafted to convince his men that he’s one of them.
Kashin also believes Zolotov is trying to expand his influence within Russia’s security apparatus — an endeavor he compares to the ambitions of Viktor Cherkesov, the former head of the Federal Drug Control Service, who famously lost his power grab and his entire agency. The irony, Kashin says, is that Zolotov is the upstart “oppositionist” within the “Kremlin towers,” and he’s trying to grow his status through a crackdown on Alexey Navalny’s coalition.