Meet the Russian president's go-to operator, a man whose power inside Russia's leadership structure is rapidly increasing.
When Vladimir Putin decided to detain reputed crime boss Semyon Mogilevich back in January 2008, he didn't use regular police, special forces, the Investigative Committee, or even the Federal Security Service (FSB). Instead, he relied on an elite force from the Interior Ministry's Department of Economic Security, which was the fiefdom of a trusted old pal, a KGB veteran named Yevgeny Shkolov.
In retrospect, this is not surprising.
Shkolov's ties to Putin go way back. All the way back to when they served together as KGB agents in Dresden in the 1980s. And he is increasingly becoming Putin's go-to guy for sensitive operations. Shkolov was formally named an adviser to the president in May and placed in charge of personnel policy. Recently he was put in charge of investigating illegal financial transactions by Russian officials.
So in addition to being Putin's own personal Human Resources Department, Shkolov is also the guardian of the Kremlin's "kompromat" files. And that makes him the most important Russian official you've (probably) never heard of. The website rumafia.com, which compiles dossiers on top Russian officials, calls him "the new gray cardinal of the Kremlin," adding that "security, defense, and law-enforcement officials are forced to go cap in hand to Shkolov, knowing that there is a 99 percent chance that his position will be supported by the president."
Shkolov's most recent role grew out of the Kremlin's anticorruption campaign that appeared to pick up steam late last year. In December, Putin ordered state companies and state-owned banks to open their books and disclose the salaries of their top managers and their relatives. The State Duma, meanwhile, passed legislation requiring officials to repatriate foreign assets. Quoting Kremlin sources, the daily Vedomosti reported that Putin has given officials till the end of the year to return their foreign-held assets to Russia. Putin then tasked Shkolov with heading up a new interagency group that would collect information about officials' property and business dealings.
If this were a real campaign against graft, he would simply be playing the role of an anticorruption ombudsman. But, of course, it is highly unlikely that this is what's happening. If the past is any guide, the new regulations will be enforced selectively and aimed at those who cross the Kremlin. It's all about leverage and control at a time when Putin is struggling mightily to regain control over a restless elite. And as the compiler and keeper of the files, this gives Shkolov an enormous amount of power. (Interestingly, it is a role Putin himself played as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.)
"Security officers are known for having excellent memories. They never forget a friend or an enemy, and Yevgeny Shkolov is no exception," the newspaper Novaya gazeta wrote recently.
This much was clear soon after Shkolov took his Kremlin post: In carrying out Putin's desire to clean out the Interior Ministry, he also used the opportunity to exact revenge on his adversaries there.
After joining the Interior Ministry in 2006, Shkolov quickly rose through the ranks. In 2007 -- aided by Putin's patronage -- he was named deputy interior minister and was believed by some to be in line for the top job. This, naturally, put him in conflict with then-Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. Shkolov resigned from the Interior Ministry in 2011, nominally over differences with Nurgaliyev. But Russian media reports suggest the real reason was his proximity to a mounting corruption scandal related to the attempted takeover of Togliattiazot, one of the world's largest ammonia exporters.
"His resignation," reported Novaya gazeta, "looked like a rescue operation designed to save him from a snowballing corruption scandal at the department of economic crime."
But by May 2012, Nurgaliyev was out as interior minister, replaced by Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and Shkolov was safely embedded in the Kremlin. And as rumafia.com reports, within six months he had purged the ministry's upper ranks of his enemies.
Shkolov also appears to have helped Putin in some unusual and unexpected ways.
When antigovernment protests were shaking the Kremlin in December 2011, Igor Kholmanskikh, then an unknown foreman at the UralVagonZavod tank factory in Niznhy Tagil, offered on Putin's live call-in show to travel to Moscow "with the guys" and deal with the demonstrators. Putin famously named Kholmanskikh his special envoy to the Urals region shortly after returning to the Kremlin in May. But what went virtually unnoticed at the time was that the chairman of UralVagonZavod's board of directors was none other than Yevgeny Shkolov, who was cooling his heels there after his resignation from the Interior Ministry. Soon, Shkolov would be named a Kremlin aide.
"Shkolov seems to be placed where Putin needs something done or something watched, and is then moved on when his patron's interests and needs change," NYU professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security service and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," told me in a recent e-mail.
And right now, Putin needs Shkolov's eyes and ears in the Kremlin. Which makes him somebody to keep an eye on.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.