Why Putin Discarded Onishchenko

October 29, 2013
Photo: Sergey Zhukov / ITAR-TASS

Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Consumer Protection Service, has been dismissed. Onishchenko was seen as the face of many Russian isolationist policies, such as the banning of “harmful” food products from many former Soviet countries which had expressed interests in joining the European Union instead of the Russian alternative, the Customs Union. The Moscow Times has suggested that this could be a sign that Russia may be willing to comply with World Trade Organization policies, and move away from Onishchenko’s isolating protectionism. The liberal magazine Slon translated below, suggests that this theory may be accurate, and details how Onishchenko had been clashing with other leading officials over various policies.

It should be noted that in the last 24 hours Russia has suggested that it could be increasing pressure on Ukraine, a development which might undercut this argument somewhat (we’ve included links in the relevant sections below). Perhaps it is possible that Ukraine will continue to be “punished,” but other former Soviet republics see their penalties decreased as overtures of good will. This remains to be seen, however.

Slon also adds that Onishchenko was not one of Putin’s cronies, and was thus expendable. – Ed.

Following the resignation of [Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Consumer Protection Service], there appeared some not very funny, but quite telling, jokes giving you an idea about the clout of the chief sanitary doctor of Russia. One of them, for example, is that the resignation of Onishchenko was lobbied by [Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu], for it is not acceptable that foreigners feared a doctor more than the defense minister.

[Onishchenko]’s dismissal came as a surprise to everyone. No leaks in any media sources. Slon’s sources in the government claim that they did not know anything about the upcoming resignation. According to Dmitry Yanin, the chairman of the International Confederation of Consumer Societies, he saw Onishchenko last week, and he “had no intention whatsoever to leave his post, despite the fact that his contract was to expire soon.” Two more pieces of circumstantial evidence: his nervous reaction to the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister Golodets, and a delayed signing of the decree by her boss, Dmitry Medvedev.

First versions [first theories – Ed.]: Onishchenko was fired under pressure by business lobbyists or members of the Medvedev’s cabinet, with whom Onishchenko had to clash to uphold the powers of “Rospotrebnadzor” (the Federal service on consumer rights protection and human well-being surveillance). Or maybe it could be the excessive independence and uncontrollability of the department head that Putin also started to frown upon?

The head of Rospotrebnadzor was fast enough to react to any warming of relations with “punished” countries or to serious threats hanging over him. On the day Golodets made her statement, Onishchenko, for example, said that “the Lithuanian dairy products had a chance to return to the Russian market.” And he even noted that Rospotrebnadzor experts faced “a purely professional approach” taken by the Lithuanian side that shows their desire to “develop measures to resolve the problems that led to the current situation.” Perhaps until the very last moment he was trying to reverse the decision about his resignation. After all, he managed to dodge the bullet in 2001, when he tried to wage war against beer, so popular among Russians, only to run into resistance of beer lobbyists who sought his resignation. By the way, after that confrontation, Onishchenko began to promote the health benefits of the transition from the “northern” (vodka) type of alcohol consumption to the “southern” one (wine and beer).

Several of Slon’s sources confirm that Onishchenko openly and publicly clashed with Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, supervising social spheres in the government. More recently, on October 9, there was another harsh argument with even more powerful First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov about transferring Rospotrebnadzor’s authority to inspect and certify finished food products to Rosselkhoznadzor (Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Control). That was what Shuvalov insisted on. Onishchenko allegedly deliberately left the room. However, the government source told Slon that they could not be sure that the resignation by Onishchenko could be related to that incident. It came as a surprise to federal officials. “Indeed, Shuvalov argued with Onishchenko constantly, especially about the Customs Union, but it was obvious that those were not squabbles, but well-reasoned arguments by people who respect each other,” he said. But none of those who talked to Slon could be confident enough to say that Olga Golodets “pushed through” his resignation single-handedly.

The resignation of Gennadiy Onishchenko, a mouthpiece of the Russia’s foreign policy, who got involved in it in 2006, with a ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water in response to Georgia’s withdrawal from CIS, is yet additional indirect evidence that Putin’s imperial doctrine does not work, and the food “stick” personified by Onishchenko is no longer needed. The loss of influence over Ukraine is, perhaps, the final proof that Putin’s biggest dream – to gather Russian lands – will not come true. The statement by his assistant Glazyev about possible visa regime with Ukraine is nothing but a tantrum. The last failure – a ban on dairy imports from Lithuania in response to the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November.

Has Putin understood that the policy of threats and pressure pushed the neighboring states away and Russia will have to be content with such countries as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? It is not clear yet. But the president has already announced that he would offer a discount to Ukraine, unhappy with high gas prices, and earlier stressed that he was against the introduction of visas between Russia and the CIS countries, thus disavowing Glazyev’s statement [update, just today Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia is asking Ukraine to pre-pay for gas supplies until all their other debt is paid, raising fears of an impending gas war – Ed.].

And what about Onishchenko, who has loyally worked for Putin for the last 13 years? For the President, Onishchenko (just like Surkov) was not someone from the inner circle, a St. Petersburg buddy. They did not set up cooperatives together, neither did they find jobs in Moscow at the same time. He was just a manager doing his job. At some point, his services in the usual manner and format were no longer needed.

Yesterday, Dmitry Kozak, a Deputy Prime Minister, publicly refuted the rumor. Slon’s sources in the government confirmed that Rospotrebnadzor might not be disbanded, contrary to what had been reported by (the pro-Kremlin news outlet) Izvestia. This will entail a serious reorganization of the entire control structure at various levels, and this process could take at least two years, one of the sources told Slon. Especially since after Onishchenko departs the Rospotrebnadzor will lose its influence. It’s possible that it’s not just the agency that will undergo changes. Onishchenko in many respects was the face of foreign policy.