In a lengthy interview with TASS on July 10, 2017, Sergei Chemezov, head of state conglomerate Rostec and long-time associate of President Vladimir Putin, claims that his friendship with the president going back to their days in the KGB together in the former German Democratic Republic is not an “indulgence” or “pass." In other words, it did not help him secure his high position at Rostec.
But even in that interview, Chemezov admits that out of a circle of seven KGB officers -- including Lazar Matveev onetime KGB boss in former East Germany and with whom Chemezov and Putin recently celebrated his 90th birthday -- one officer has gone to the West and published criticism of his former friends and another can't be found but one is the president of Russia, and three others all had top jobs.
In an article called "Twelve Who Have Putin's Ear" published in 2007, RFE/RL includes Chemezov among Putin’s closest circle. At that time, Chemezov served as head of Rosoboroneksport, Russia’s weapons-export monopoly.
In 2007, Rostec (also known as Rostekh) was created as a conglomeration of 700 companies in the defense industry to promote production and export of hi-tech industrial products for civil and defense sectors, notably weapons.
Chemezov appears to have played a key role in the sensitive deal of the S-300s sold to Iran. When Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin jumped the gun in January 2016 saying that the delivery “was under way,” Chemezov provided a more cautious report that the delivery would begin only “at the end of 2016”.
Later, Reuters reported that Rostec had announced that the delivery was completed in October 2016 and Interfax reported in April 2017 that Chemezov himself had reported to Putin that all the S-300s had been delivered – indicating how close he was to the closely-held deal.
To prove Chemezov’s claim that friendship with Putin doesn’t help one’s career, we would have to find a close friend who didn’t enjoy career benefits, or, a close friend who got a career boost and then fell from favor because he was incompetent. Such figures have been difficult to find.
In general, those who were close to Putin in his youth have top jobs and lucrative contracts or access to investments like Sergei Rodulgin, the cellist, or the Rotenberg brothers. (Arkady and Boris are owners of Stroygazmontazh, the top company building gas pipelines. Arkady, Putin’s former judo sparring partner, is now in charge of building the bridge to Crimea.
While Putin appoints and dismisses – or even has arrested – various governors of Russia’s provinces such as Nikita Belykh, former head of Kirov region and others – nearly all those close to the Russian leader seem immune to any career setbacks.
One exception is Viktor Cherkesov, former career KGB officer and law school buddy of Putin's in St. Petersburg, who was dismissed as head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service in 2016 in a reorganization of defense, intelligence and police agencies that saw his agency completely dismantled. Since then, he has not played a public role.
Two others to suffer setbacks are Sergei Ivanov and Vladimir Yakunin.
A fellow former KGB officer, Ivanov was dismissed from his position as Putin’s chief of staff, but kept his place on on the increasingly-important National Security Council. Moreover, he was made a special advisor on the environment.
While some commentators interpreted the dismissal of Ivanov as a demotion that represented a clash of rivaling factions in the Kremlin, the fact that Putin has retained Ivanov as a permanent member of the Security Council tends seems to indicate he has retained influence.
Yakunin, believed to have been associated with Putin in St. Petersburg when he was in the KGB and a fellow member of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, to which other close associates of Putin belong, was dismissed from his post as head of Russian Railways amid reports of his son seeking UK citizenship and numerous allegations of corruption. Yet he remains an influential public figure, not put in disgrace, but assigned to head the Dialogue of Civilizations Forum and other patriotic projects.
Sergei Roldulgin, a close friend of Putin's from his youth in St. Petersburg was accused by investigative journalists in the Panama Papers of holding an offshore fortune and serving as the "secret caretaker" of Putin's millions. But as Time journalist Simon Shuster wrote, relationship with Putin, while it can be nerve-wracking because of all the favors people ask for, "has its perks." Rodulgin claimed the millions came from donations to buy musical instruments for his orchestra. Putin himself said the Panama Papers were a Western effort "to weaken Russia." Despite the scandal, and a mild reprimand from Putin when Rodulgin asked for more funds for musical instruments, Rodulgin has not fallen from Putin’s favor but continues to thrive.
Of the 12 mentioned by RFE/RL ten years ago, all but one continue to hold on to top posts or if dismissed, like Yakunin, are not in disgrace and continue to serve in influential positions. Aside from Chemezov there is Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft; Nikolai Patrushev, head of the National Security Council; Viktor Ivanov, chairman of the board of Almaz-Antei, the missile development conglomerate; Dmitry Medvedev, prime minister; Yury Kovalchyuk, chairman of the board of Bank Rossiya; Aleksandr Grigoryev, director of the Federal State Reserves Agency; Dmitry Kozak, Regional Development Minister; and Sergei Naryshkin, former speaker of parliament and currently head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
The career trajectories of Putin’s cronies, despite numerous allegations at home or abroad of corruption and despite the fact many are under Western sanctions for their role in the war on Ukraine, indicate that presidential “indulgence” appears to be a factor in their career successes and more importantly, their failure to fall from favor.