In early November, as Americans prepared to re-elect President Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin fired his long-time ally Anatoly Serdyukov, the man who's served as Russia's Defense Minister since 2007. Sergei Shoigu, the Governor of the Moscow Oblast and the former head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (the MChS), was appointed in his place.
There is wide speculation about what prompted Serdyukov's ouster. Most noticeably, he recently came under investigation for selling off military property for personal gain. The ongoing case served as the official reason for replacing Serdyukov with Shoigu, though other theories abound, as Russia's military is deeply mired in corruption, despite years of anti-graft campaigns.
Journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin submits [ru] that Putin is grooming Shoigu as an heir, just as Yeltsin nurtured the rapid rise of Putin himself in the late 1990s. Kashin argues that the promotion is meant to boost Shoigu's stature, so that Putin can at last retire:
За Сергея Шойгу как за «будущего президента России» в МЧС поднимали тосты еще при президенте Ельцине. Сейчас по этому поводу если и можно спорить, то только о способе прихода к власти: либо Путин назначит его преемником, либо Шойгу назначит себя сам.
In the MChS, they toasted Sergei Shoigu as the “future President of Russia” as far back as Yeltsin's days. The only question now is how he'll come to power: either Putin will appoint him as his ‘successor,’ or Shoigu will appoint himself.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin is not getting any younger, and, in recent years, Russia observers have increasingly noted a rising demand for better democratic institutions. The country's lack of elite turnover also seems to produce more popular anger today than at any earlier point in Putin's dominance of Russian politics. Putin's “tandem partner” and one-time boss Dmitri Medvedev lacks the power and charisma to be a successful leader without Putin. Shoigu, on the other hand, is independently quite popular. In a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Center, Shoigu's 78% approval rating made him the most popular minister in the federal government by far. (The runner-up trailed by more than twenty points!)
Many in the political opposition detected an element of desperation in the cadres reshuffle. Opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov was particularly ominous [ru]:
Шойгу то на Московскую область был брошен, теперь на Министерство обороны. Это очень тревожный сигнал, говорит о том, что кадровый запас просто скудный до невозможности у властей.
Shoigu was sent to the Moscow Oblast, and now to the Ministry of Defense. This is a red flag; it says that that the authorities’ cadre reserves are running thin.
In a Facebook post [ru] on November 16, Solidarnost activist Pavel Shelkov [ru] spread a rumor that Putin is dying of spinal cancer and is indeed preparing Shoigu to replace him as president. Shelkov, who is not a doctor, claims that Putin has just three months to live. “The Virgin Mother has granted the girls’ prayer,” he declared, referring to Pussy Riot's now infamous plea from the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that Mary “banish Putin.”