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Russian defense minister's sacking suggests political infighting (+video)

Anatoly Serdyukov is mired in a corruption scandal, but some experts say that he was driven out by conservatives unhappy with his military reforms.

By Correspondent / November 6, 2012

In this May 2012 file photo, Russia's Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, bottom right, watch the Victory Day Parade, in Moscow. Mr. Putin announced Tuesday he had fired Mr. Serdyukov, who has been accused of being involved in a corruption scandal.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File

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Moscow

President Vladimir Putin dropped the hammer Tuesday on Russia's first civilian defense minister, military reformer Anatoly Serdyukov, amid a burgeoning corruption scandal that appears to have implicated the minister and some of his top aides in a $100 million embezzlement scheme.

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MOSCOW (Russian Federation) (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin named Moscow region governor and long-standing ally Sergei Shoigu as the new defence minister after firing Anatoly Serdyukov over a corruption scandal, the most dramatic change to the government since he returned to the Kremlin for a third term.

Mr. Putin said he was sacking Mr. Serdyukov in order to "ensure the objectivity of the investigation" into the spreading scandal around Oboronservis, a Defense Ministry-owned company that was accused last month by the State Duma's Accounting Chamber of selling prized real estate plots around Moscow at a loss – with huge kickbacks allegedly being funneled to top ministry officials. His removal means that Serdyukov can now be questioned in connection with the case.

In a somewhat unusual announcement, which suggests political considerations may lie just below the surface, a Kremlin statement made clear that Serdyukov was removed on Putin's orders, but his successor, Sergei Shoigu, was chosen "on the recommendation of the prime minister," former President Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr. Shoigu, a four-star Army general who's the current governor of the Moscow region and was long-time head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (the Russian equivalent of FEMA), has an unshakeable reputation for competence and loyalty, and is one of the few long-time Russian officials who appears to enjoy genuine, from-the-heart public respect.

Mixed reaction

Reaction to Serdyukov's firing was mixed, with some military-connected experts blaming the civilian minister for alienating the officer corps, gutting the armed forces, and fanning the flames of corruption in the course of carrying out the most sweeping campaign of structural reforms to Russia's military in almost a century.

"Military people didn't like Serdyukov, because he seemed to have no connection with the Army," says Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "His Army reforms had a destructive character, and the results are ambiguous at best."

Serdyukov was given extraordinary political backing by Putin to enact reform after the brief 2008 war with Georgia revealed vast inefficiencies in Russia's military capabilities.

His thankless task was to effectively abolish the old Soviet "mobilization army," which kept hundreds of "phantom divisions" – with almost no personnel but a full complement of top officers – on the books, to be filled out with reservists in time of war. In the course of the reforms, thousands of officers were forced to retire, the privileges of generals were slashed, while pay and benefits for those who remained in the streamlined Russian army were substantially improved.

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