Following the Biryulevo race riots in Moscow, an interesting realignment in politics has seen nationalist deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin contesting the anti-corruption territory held by opposition leader Alexei Navalny and vice versa. The most recent such struggle has been over the Russian defense ministry’s decision, reversed on October 25, to order a batch of Austrian-made Glock pistols.
In part, the decision raised eyebrows because one of the reasons behind the downfall of former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov was his willingness to break with a tradition of always buying Russian, signing deals to buy French amphibious assault ships and Italian armored vehicles. Given that Russia has a thriving domestic smallarms industry, had already opted to introduce the Yarygin PYa MP-443 pistol to replace the ageing Makarov PMM, and was also trialing the advanced Strizh, there seemed no overwhelming reason to opt for the Glock, even though they have already been bought for some police special forces units.
More to the point, Navalny then brought to public attention that procurement agency Rosoboronpostavka planned to buy 318 Glock 17 pistols for 210,000 rubles ($6,600) and 24 Glock 26s for 191,000 rubles ($6,000), when even the retail price in Russian gun stores is up to around 60,000 rubles ($1,886). Furthermore, he noted that Rogozin’s son Alexei had formerly worked at Promtekhnologii, the Russian company with the rights to import Glocks.
This was a direct challenge to Rogozin, who is in overall charge of the defense-industrial sector and also an outspoken advocate of the “buy Russian” campaign. This was doubly embarrassing because he had previously announced that the military would be adopting the Strizh across the board.
However, unlike most of the Russian government, Rogozin is also an outspoken and rambunctious politician—his @Rogozin twitter feed is as infamous as it is entertaining—willing to take on the media-savvy Navalny. He replied in the same vein, noting that his son had voluntarily left the defense sector when Rogozin acquired that portfolio, stating that he himself had problems with the proposed purchase and was looking into it, and demanding that Navalny apologize for casting aspersions against him and his family. On October 25, the Glock order was cancelled.
What makes this so-called “golden gun” spat significant is precisely that it illustrates two of the key emerging battlegrounds in Russian politics. The first is Navalny’s effort to harness nationalism to his existing anti-corruption campaign. His outspoken attacks on the embezzlement in government and his characterization of the ruling United Russia bloc as the “Party of Swindlers and Thieves” has struck a chord, but his share of the public vote is still relatively small.
If he is able also to make his campaign a nationalist one, to illustrate the extent to which mismanagement and corruption also harm Russia’s security and standing in the world, he may be able to extend his appeal to a much wider audience. Given that last year the Federal Defense Contracts Service said that it had uncovered some 1,500 violations and infractions were uncovered in 2012, involving over 16 billion rubles ($533 million), it seems there is a strong potential case to be made.
However, just as Navalny is trying to add the nationalist card to his hand, so too Rogozin is seeking to present himself as the scourge of maladministration and embezzlement within the government. Rogozin—a multilingual nationalist who used to be Russia’s representative to NATO—is something of an outsider; he is not a member of United Russia, and was once a critic of the administration. He is genuinely committed to developing Russia’s military might and thus cracking down on waste.
However, he is also ambitious, despite the ritual rejection of any hopes one day to achieve the presidency. The opportunity to present himself as a scourge of corruption is one that also allows himself to raise his profile further. Ironically, Navalny’s efforts to move into his nationalist territory also allows Rogozin a symmetrical opportunity, and highlights the extent to which there is a growing, unspoken campaign as contenders begin to position themselves as President Putin’s eventual successor.