'American Idol,' Kremlin-style: the hunt for talented leaders

Russian officials handpick a ‘Golden 100’ group of young people to shake-up an aging bureaucracy.

Top Russian officials met in March with members of the 'Golden 100,' the best-qualified nominees selected out of a new talent pool set up by President Dmitry Medvedev to fill key posts in the Russian government and shake-up an aging bureaucracy.

Call it "American Idol," Kremlin-style. Only this version isn’t intended to find the next Carrie Underwood. It’s a nationwide talent hunt to identify the next generation of Russian leaders – ones that are modern-minded, uncorrupted, and presumably forward-thinking.

The “Golden 100” initiative is the pet project of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who sees it as a way to revivify Russia’s tired and torpid bureaucracy. In one sense, it might be the ultimate social engineering project: A government trying to reinvent itself by finding replacement parts for its own political machine.

While many critics dismiss the initiative as a mere gimmick, Mr. Medvedev has invested a lot of prestige in the project and some of tomorrow’s leaders may emerge from the anointing process.

“There is a critical shortage of capable, professional managers at all levels in our country,” says Yury Kotler, a council member of the ruling party, United Russia, who has been put in charge of the project. “We don’t have many years to wait for a changing of the guard, from old-style bureaucrats to new leaders. So our idea is to find people ... who are already out there in the civil service, business, political parties, academia, and other fields. We will put them into accelerated circulation.”

That includes people like Alexei Andreyev, who heads a business consultancy in the western city of Novgorod. He was accepted into the program earlier this year and has since risen to the upper echelon of winners. He says it’s already helped him advance his idea of establishing an industrial park near Novgorod, by opening local officials’ doors and attracting investors. “This gives me a lot more opportunity to influence the process of innovation and modernization in my own region,” he says.

Stanislav Molchanenko, a political aide working on the Stavropol council, in southern Russia, was a veteran of United Russia’s auxiliary youth group who went on to become a party functionary. But since being singled out by Medvedev’s initiative, he’s moved up and now oversees the “Golden 100” project locally, tasked with finding other talented young people.

“This gives me the opportunity to find undiscovered stars who need a boost, and then to help them pass through bureaucratic barriers to get better jobs so they can be useful to society,” he says. “This really works.”

Other rising stars include Andrei Turchak, a youthful parliamentarian who has been appointed governor of the important western Russian region of Pskov, and former law professor Garry Minkh, who has been named as the Kremlin’s official emissary to the State Duma.

In all, Mr. Kotler says he has 20,000 names of worthy candidates in his computer, about 1,300 of whom have passed a rigorous process of testing and interviewing. A final list of 300 fully vetted people – more than the original “Golden 100” – has now been compiled.

In selecting candidates, Kotler insists no political loyalty test is involved, nor any job guarantees extended. Winners are expected to network among themselves, generate ideas, and use their Kremlin seal of approval to push for reforms.

“There are no tangible rewards,” says Kotler. “But officials know that these people have gone through a lot of hoops. They have what amounts to a letter of recommendation from [top leaders].”

Still, critics see the plan as a desperate attempt to shake things up without introducing any real bureaucratic reforms.

“Public politics in Russia are severely restricted,” says Nikolai Petrov, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s civil society program. “We do not have real, competitive elections, or transparency in government, or open institutions through which talented people can rise on their own merits. But leaders recognize the system isn’t working, so they propose this substitute method.”

Others consider it just a stunt. “The work of actually reforming the bureaucracy and fighting corruption is hard and slow, but you can’t just pretend to do it,” says Igor Nikolayev, an expert with FBK, an independent Moscow political consultancy. “This is just going to bring forward a new generation of people who are ready to say and do whatever it takes to advance their careers. Who needs that?”

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