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Sergei Chebotarev: I’ve never been career-minded

The Minister for North Caucasus Affairs in a TASS special project Top Officials
Andrey Vandenko 
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
On debts, phoney banks accounts, investment and Cossack roots

 — Do you use a gas stove at home?

No, we have an electric one. However, we used gas cookers when I was in the army and served in the Primorye Region on the Chinese border. In the early 1990s, there were some supply problems. Disruptions occurred from time to time.

In Chechnya today, there have been no shortages for a long time. But there are problems with payments. Consumers owe Gazprom a hefty sum. Yet even here, some tried to cut corners: at the request of the republic’s prosecutor, a court in Grozny ruled that a nine-billion-ruble ($137-mln) debt should be written off at the stroke of a pen…

To begin with, no specific sum was mentioned in the court’s ruling. It’s sheer speculation. Moreover, there was no write-off. I should say, the whole affair looked like a reconnaissance-in-force operation, an attempt to see how society would react.

— The answer was No. The public outside Chechnya did not like the idea at all.

I’d say, yes. Large household utility debts do exist. This is true of the Chechen Republic and other regions that constitute the North Caucasus Federal District (NCFD). As at the end of 2018, the debt for natural gas stood at about 94 billion rubles ($1.4 bln). Regrettably, it keeps growing. As for wholesale purchases, the federal district’s debt is really stunning – 200 billion rubles ($3 bln). This is a mammoth sum. The issue is being addressed. The necessary instruments are available.

There is a special group for the fuel and energy complex under the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev-led government commission for the development of the North Caucasus Federal District. I’m in charge of this group, and I regularly report our progress to the government. A package of measures is being taken. First and foremost, all payments are being converted into non-cash form. About 75% of consumers have already done that.

This is extremely important. Whenever cash is involved, all sorts of shady schemes emerge more often than not. All sorts of middlemen must be eliminated.

And, of course, the problem of phoney bank accounts has to be addressed.

— What’s that?

It looks like this. There are official personal accounts both individuals or corporate entities use to make payments. Alongside them there may emerge twin, phoney bank accounts. According to the latter both individuals and organizations are tax evaders, though they may be even unaware of this. The phoney accounts are actively used by the shadow economy sector, which is still significantly present in the North Caucasus, but doesn’t pay a dime in federal taxes. There are bootleg brick factories, oil refineries, greenhouse farms and alcohol distilleries…

They consume gas illegally and write off the costs through these bogus accounts. This fraudulent scheme is polished to perfection.

— Electric power supply is surely vulnerable to the same type of fraud.

That’s true, the two situations are largely similar, but gas theft is still larger!

I’m aware of the Chechen leadership’s arguments and why it is trying to resolve the problem in such a cardinal way. However, this approach does not look correct to me. A dispute between economic entities is not something out of the ordinary, but still such matters are beyond the range of competences of a district court.


— Besides, the question that instantly arises is this: Why is somebody allowed to take certain liberties that others cannot?

Exactly! The country has seen a sort of a flash mob campaign. Other regions of Russia, too, have begun to demand that their retail gas debts should be written off, as well.

Let me say once again, the mechanisms of lifting tensions in this field have been created. There are local groups managing the fuel and energy complex, which the regional leaders are in charge of. That’s where the corresponding decisions are to be made. That’s the place where disputes are to be taken instead of litigation in district courts.

As far as Chechnya is concerned, one should bear in mind one very important circumstance. Grozny argues that the mammoth retail debt was accrued during the second military campaign. When the war was over, the Chechen authorities suddenly discovered that the retail consumers owe an awful lot for gas. Then there followed speculations about the statute of limitations, which had long expired.

In a word, all aspects of the problem must be taken into account. Hasty decisions should be avoided by all means.

— The recent arrest of Karachay-Cherkessia’s Senator Rauf Arashukov, followed by a series of detentions, is related to the gas industry, too. Investigators say the amount of the embezzlement has soared into the tens of billions.

Let us wait and see. I suspect that we’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg. The law enforcers are now looking into the situation. The investigation and trial will show what has remained out of sight so far.

— Why is the regional fuel and energy complex subordinate to the Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs?

To tell you the truth, I was surprised, too, when I saw the list of my responsibilities. Whatever the case, we have to do what we’ve been told.

The supply networks’ depreciation rate is a problem that is no less acute than the gas and electricity debts. I’m referring to gas carriers and the high-voltage power lines. Most supply lines were installed back in the Soviet era. Now their life cycle is about to expire.

The power distribution company Rosseti did a great job in Dagestan. The republic held a large-scale exercise, which brought together specialists from different parts of Russia. They pooled efforts and repaired power grids in the area of Makhachkala. This considerably improved the situation, which was extremely important, because the capital city and its surrounding areas are home to more than half of the republic’s population. About 40% of Dagestan’s power supply network is found there.

— And how much electricity is stolen?

The overall losses in Dagestan’s power supply networks currently stand at about 33%, including the loss of energy transmitted at long distances and the aging equipment-induced losses. Likely theft of electricity is counted, too.

Vladimir Vasiliev was dispatched to the region in order to restore order. I believe that he is coping with his duties well enough. Dagestan’s fuel and energy complex is being streamlined slowly but surely. Payments by households and utility companies are going up and losses are shrinking. Such positive trends can be observed not only in Dagestan, but in the whole region. However, perfect order is still a long way ahead.

The republics in the North Caucasus are the recipients of federal subsidies, but the money comes in different ways. There is budget-leveling, in other words, direct irrecoverable subsidies, and there are investments, most of them from the Ministry for the North Caucasus and the Corporation for the Development of the North Caucasus (CDNC). The ministry strictly controls the way the money is spent.

— What are the amounts of money you have to handle?

Each region in the North Caucasus gets about one and a half billion rubles for investment projects. In 2018, 4.86 billion rubles ($74 mln) came from the CDNC and approximately as much - 4.3 billion ($66 mln) - was disbursed last year for the development of health resorts in the North Caucasus Federal District. The funds for this year have been distributed and the projects selected. The last finishing touches are to be added.

It is important to ensure the money should be spent effectively, within the agreed deadlines and on decent purposes. I know that the Audit Chamber, the law enforcers and different watchdogs are somewhat critical of the CDNC and why. We are taking their comments into account and reorganize our work accordingly. The results will be soon in sight, I’m sure about that.

— How long did it take you to sort things out? You’d never had a chance to deal with North Caucasus affairs before, hadn’t you?

Never directly. I had contacts with partners in Transcaucasia. We cooperated on culture, interregional ties, and on economic and humanitarian affairs. The North Caucasus was invariably present within my range of attention. I was personally acquainted with many leaders of the NCFD’s constituent regions. It would be incorrect to say that I’m starting from scratch. This is not so.

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on my appointment to the ministerial post on May 18 last year. Three months later, I already found my bearings in the social and economic processes underway in the North Caucasus.

I’m already deeply immersed in the local problems, but in fairness a 12-month cycle is to be completed before a newcomer can understand how the region works.

— Who broke the news that you might become a government minister?

On the eve of my appointment, Chief of the Kremlin staff, Anton Vaino, interviewed me. He told me the decision had been agreed on in a preliminary fashion with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Right after that I was received by the prime minister, who at the end of the conversation wished me success in my future capacity. Soon after, I saw Dmitry Medvedev on television mention my name to the president alongside other members of his Cabinet.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko and Russia's Minister for North Caucasus Affairs Sergei Chebotarev  Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko and Russia's Minister for North Caucasus Affairs Sergei Chebotarev
© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

— Refusal was not a possibility, I reckon?

Only in combination with a resignation letter… Honestly speaking, both interviews implied a clear answer to the question if I was prepared to take a federal minister’s position. I replied in the affirmative.

To tell you the truth, I never ever rejected my superiors’ proposals to try a new job. Never. Many assignments turned out not to be easy ones, and even hard to cope with, but I always accepted. This time, too, I told Vaino and Medvedev that I would do my best to live up to their expectations.

— When did you travel to the Caucasus for the first time?

When I was a boy. I was there on vacation with my parents. But that’s beside the point. Everything was different then – the whole world and myself as well.

— You are from the Far East, aren’t you?

I was born in the village of Magdagachi, in the Amur Region. It’s a railway station on the Trans-Siberian Line. The nearest city, Zeya, is 200 kilometers away. And Blagoveshchensk is a little less than 500 kilometers from it. My father, a graduate of the Khabarovsk Institute of Railway Engineers, was a track foreman. My mother was a student in the same institute, only two years younger. After they got married my elder sister, Valentina was born. My mother took maternity leave to never resume her college studies.

When I was two, my father was transferred to Chita. There I started going to school and completed an eight-year course. Both my parents are buried in that city. I still have some relatives and good old friends there. Naturally, I consider Transbaikalia to be my native soil. Oddly enough, I remember my life in Magdagachi amazingly well. There’s a common misconception that when people grow up, they forget everything that happened to them at the age of two to four. Not so in my case. I can still describe the room we lived in, our furniture and the coat my mother used to wear during the wintertime. I can recall the tiniest details of life in Magdagachi. A little kid’s memory can be very tenacious…

There’d been no railway employees in my family before my parents. My granddad on the mother’s side, Mikhail, was a Cossack from the Don River area. In 1919, a Cossack uprising erupted in the upper reaches of the Don. It was brutally suppressed, my great grandparents were arrested and my dad, who was seven at the time, was sent to an orphanage.

I’ve visited the Upper Don area twice to see site of the family farm, called Demidov, on the right bank of the river near the village of Kazanskaya. Before the revolution, it had a population of some 450 – all of the people there were Cossacks. Nothing is left of the family farm today – only a barren field and barely noticeable ruins of homes overgrown with wild grass. Farmer Sergei Kozlov, whose family has lived in this area since the late 1980s, respects the Cossack traditions and takes care of the mass grave of Red Army soldiers, who lost their lives during World War II, but let me say once again, there is not a slightest hint at what life was like there in the past.

Now back to my dad, Mikhail. I can say that until the end of his life he remained a steadfast Soviet patriot. In 1945, he was in the army fighting against the Japanese in northeastern China. He was firmly committed to the Communist ideals and a member of the Communist Party himself. He was repeatedly elected to the district governmental body, the Soviet. Even after retiring on a pension, he kept working in the local fire-fighting service.

Sergei Chebotarev studying chess combinations, Chita, 1976 Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
Sergei Chebotarev studying chess combinations, Chita, 1976
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

And he never had a grudge against the authorities, though life had no mercy on him. In particular, in his childhood.

— And how did he feel about Stalin?

I’d say he felt esteem. At least I recall my dad was very upset when during the so-called “Khrushchev thaw” a large bas-relief of Stalin, which GULAG inmates had chiseled on a large rock near the Trans-Siberian Railway, was blown up…

— The so-called thaw, you say?

The way I see it, there was no thaw as such. Just a time-serving maneuver. And not for the better… Anyway, this is a topic for discussion on a different occasion.

— Then let’s talk more about your family.

On my mother’s side, I have peasants from the Odessa Region of Ukraine. My granddad Pyotr was a tractor driver. In 1944, he was drafted into the army only to be killed in action a month later. His grave was never found, so he was listed as missing in action. My grandmother, Ksenia, had three little children to support. After the war, she moved to the Rostov Region to get a job at the Krasnosulinsk Steel Mill, where she was paid a bonus for exposure to heat, and given free milk in compensation for occupational hazards. Naturally, she brought the milk home for the kids.

When she was 16, my mother joined a group of Young Communist League activists delegated to the Far East to build what is now the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. A year later, she was admitted to the Khabarovsk Institute of Railway Engineers, where she would meet my dad. I’ve already told you about our life in Magdagachi and the resettlement to Chita.

Part 2
On the harsh daily routine of a teenage cadet, military service on the border, Chinese language classes and the turbulent 1990s

— What made you apply to the Suvorov Military School system for teenage cadets?

It was the outcome of a patriotic Soviet upbringing. And I’m not kidding. I liked the military sports game for youngsters known as Zarnitsa (Summer Lightning). The classes of ABC military skills at school, including the process of disassembling and assembling a Kalashnikov assault rifle against the clock. The film called the Crimson Epaulets telling a story of orphaned sons of Red Army officers at a paramilitary boarding school was the final argument. It was in 1980, if I’m not mistaken. I was in the fourth grade in school back then. I saw that film on our small black-and-white TV. I remember that moment marked a turning point in life. Although we had no career military servicemen in the family.

Sergei Chebotarev in Ussuriysk Suvorov Military School, 1986 Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
Sergei Chebotarev in Ussuriysk Suvorov Military School, 1986
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

I instantly realized that my goal in life was to become a Suvorov School cadet. I started coaching myself for the entrance exams. I pumped iron and learned to do pull-ups. I also jogged each morning. As timed passed, I grew strong enough.

— Did your parents accept your choice?

My dad was very critical. At first, he tried to talk me out of my plan. He said: “Look at those military people. They live a vagabond’s life. They move from garrison to garrison. They always keep their bags packed, for they never know where they will be tomorrow. No chance of building a home or settling down…” I tried to fight back: “But you are a railway engineer and you have had to go from place to place all over Trans-Baikal, too…”

To make a long story short, my words fell on deaf ears. We stuck to our own opinions. Nevertheless, one day I went to the local office of the military commissar and found out the correct way of writing an application to a Suvorov Military School. Then I decided to show it to my father. He read it from beginning end and … tore it to pieces. Then he said: “Forget about it. Finish school first. Then we’ll see what you should do next.”

I preferred not to argue. I wrote another application, went to the military commissar’s office and handed it to the officer on duty. The officer asked me if my parents knew about my decision. I said “Yes,” adding that my father was strongly against, but I’d made up my mind to become an army officer anyway. The office gave me a stern look and said: “Military service is really tough, that’s true. Why don’t you change your mind before it is too late?” I insisted that my decision was unwavering…

I went to the entrance exams in Ussuriysk in the company of a friend of mine, Andrei Lyubin. We’d been pals since the age of six. He still lives in Transbaikalia and runs a business of his own and supports some social projects. We were in the same year in school, though in different classes, and often played football in the schoolyard. Andrei was enthusiastic about my idea of going to a Suvorov Military School, which made me incredibly happy. When you are just 14 it is always easier to leave home, knowing there is a friend by your side.

With a childhood friend Andrei Lyubin in the summer camp of Ussuriysk Suvorov Military School, 1985 Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
With a childhood friend Andrei Lyubin in the summer camp of Ussuriysk Suvorov Military School, 1985
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

— How long did it take you to get from Chita to Ussuriysk?

Two and a half days by train.

There was a whole group of applicants. Some 30 boys were sent from Trans-Baikal to take the entrance exams, but only four or five managed to get through. All the others failed. Andrei and I passed the tests. We were in the same company and tried to support each other, which was of great help, of course.

— Was it a tough experience?

You bet. Leaving home sweet home and suddenly finding oneself in what was pretty close to an army environment was a stressful experience. Adaptation takes time.

— You mean getting used to the “You’re in the army now” lifestyle?

In a sense. At 14, a man’s character is still being shaped. We imagined that we were adults, but in reality, we were still little kids. Strict army discipline and harsh punishment for violating were a severe test for all of us. I recall I used to wake up minutes before the reveille and braced myself for jumping out of the bed on command and run to the square for morning exercise. We had to go out there shirtless in any weather. I can also tell you that in the old building where we slept (it had been converted to barracks from a stable) it was rather cold at night during the winter. After all, the Far East is not Sochi or Crimea. And in the canteen it was rather chilly, too. We had our meals without taking off our overcoats.

Sergei Chebotarev as a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle crew member. Field training center of the Far Eastern Marshal Rokossovsky Military Academy, 1989 Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
Sergei Chebotarev as a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle crew member. Field training center of the Far Eastern Marshal Rokossovsky Military Academy, 1989
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

— Did you ever think of quitting and going back home to your mom and dad?

I won’t lie to you. I did have such thoughts. And I’m sure that all boys did have doubts like that more than once. Life in the Suvorov School was really hard. But the thought of what I’d say at home stopped me. That we’d failed and decided to give up? I could not afford to let anyone think that I was a loser!

I’m certain that the Suvorov Military School molded me into what I am today. The Ussuriysk period was the school of life. Later on, it was much easier. Including the course at the Marshal Rokossovsky Military Academy in Blagoveshchensk, which I joined in 1986.

Once in a while we’d get together with the boys that I studied with together in Ussuriysk. All are grown-up self-made men, and successful by and large. When looking back on the years spent in the Suvorov School we invariably ask ourselves: would we make the same choice again?

— And what is the answer?

By all means. It takes going through endless trials and tribulations to grow up to be a real man. One’s character is to be shaped starting from childhood. Also, we dreamed of becoming officers and we did everything the commanders ordered us. We excelled at doing physical exercise. We would run four kilometers instead of three. We would do 15 pull-ups while ten would’ve been enough…

— What prompted you to become a border guard officer?

I was invited. Several months before my graduation from the military academy, recruiters from the border guard service stopped by. They needed eight to ten men. By that time, the Soviet Army had pulled out of Afghanistan, but the Central Asian Border Guard District needed officers skilled in using armored vehicles and commanding them in combat. The vehicles were an integral part of the mechanized mobile groups. At our military academy, we were trained to operate the BMP-2 and BTR-80 vehicles in great detail.

Sergei Chebotarev taking part in a live-fire training exercise in a field training center of the Far Eastern Marshal Rokossovsky Military Academy Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
Sergei Chebotarev taking part in a live-fire training exercise in a field training center of the Far Eastern Marshal Rokossovsky Military Academy
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

In a word, the proposal looked interesting to me. Why not? I was a good cadet. Instruction was organized according to the following pattern: a three-week course in theory and one week of hands-on experience. Firing practice, driving lessons and maintenance…

In my second year at the military academy, I began to study Chinese in earnest. Many of my friends wondered: What are you going to need Chinese for? I explained that I’d started learning the language back in school and was making good progress. Now I’d like to accomplish what I’d started years ago, pass the exam and become a certified translator and interpreter.

— The year you were born, the Sino-Soviet border conflict over the Damansky Island on the Ussuri River broke out, which spoiled relations with our southern neighbor for a long time.

That’s true. I even recall that some guys in our class called for boycotting Chinese language classes. Ostensibly in protest against Mao’s policies. In reality, they found it very boring to memorize hieroglyphs. As for me, I found it rather amazing and thrilling. During the years spent at the Suvorov School in Ussuriysk I did not have enough time for Chinese, but in Blagoveshchensk I hurried to eliminate the backlog. We had a good department of foreign languages and its chief, Chinese language instructor Georgy Kachan, volunteered to give me extra classes. Of course, I eagerly agreed. He was a very creative and enthusiastic personality, who really liked his profession. He shared a great deal of his own knowledge with me. Having a teacher like him, I managed to brush up my Chinese to a degree that allowed me to pass the Chinese exam and get a translator’s certificate by the day I left the academy.

Possibly this was one of the reasons why I was invited into the border guard force. I was dispatched to the Central Asian Border district, to a garrison in Turkmenistan. I did not stay there long, though. I suspect that my knowledge of Chinese became known to my commanders, so I was redeployed to the Pacific Border Guard District.

— To chase Chinese saboteurs?

There weren’t any on the Soviet-Chinese border in the 1990s. By that time, relations between the Soviet Union and China had changed dramatically for the better. Some people did cross the border illegally for private and household reasons. Quite a few of them were detained then.

To tell you the truth, I never participated in chasing intruders, so I cannot offer you a thrilling story of a manhunt or a shootout. In all other respects, the service of a border guard officer remained exhausting. Border guards have no days off, neither do they have holidays nor fixed working hours.

— Did you happen to visit China in those days?

Only some border towns in northeastern China. True, there were no match for Beijing or Shanghai, but by then it was pretty clear that the country was booming and was getting ready to make a giant leap forward. Positive changes in the economy instantly caught the eye. Besides, China was capable of pursuing firm and consistent foreign policies, something the Soviet Union lacked so much before its demise.

As you may remember, June 4, 1989 was the day of the Tiananmen Square crisis. Unauthorized protests had carried on there for six weeks by then, with young people actively participating. The Chinese leadership warned the demonstrators their actions were illegal, but the protestors ignored the calls and warnings. Then a decision was made to use force, and several hundred people were killed.

A huge crowd gathering at a Beijing intersection near Tiananmen Square, China, 1989  AP Photo/Jeff Widener
A huge crowd gathering at a Beijing intersection near Tiananmen Square, China, 1989
© AP Photo/Jeff Widener

In August 1991, the Soviet Union experienced what would later be slammed as a putsch or a government coup. Crowds took to the streets to defend the white marble building of the Russian parliament. The army was not getting any clear orders from the command. None of the Soviet leaders dared to take the initiative. The State Committee on the State of Emergency surrendered. Several months later, the country broke up.

I’d like to be understood correctly. I’m not calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union. It is impossible. But analogies readily offered themselves and they were obviously not in our favor. Deng Xiaoping displayed wisdom and willpower, something Soviet leaders of that era failed to do.

True, Beijing witnessed a loss of human life, but the country was saved and far worse fatalities had been prevented. China has survived. If the then Chinese leadership had shown itself to be feeble, there would not have been such a country on the map of the world today.

— Do you really think so?

I’m certain! China would’ve been split into several independent fragments at odds with each other. Economic prosperity would’ve been out of the question.

It was then, in the early 1990s, that I for the first time heard from the Chinese partners that behind the Tiananmen Square tragedy there was not only the dismissed Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who supported the protesters, but US secret services, too. I felt stunned. I just could not believe that Washington was meddling so crudely in the affairs of another country at a time when it was portrayed as a good friend in our mass media…

Later on, we would see such situations many times in our own country. Illusions regarding the United States are long gone.

Sergei Chebotarev is seen during negotiations on the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border with one of the Jilin province leaders, China, 1992 Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev
Sergei Chebotarev is seen during negotiations on the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border with one of the Jilin province leaders, China, 1992
© Personal archive of Sergei Chebotarev

— How did you survive the troubled 1990s?

I served in the Primorye Region and got married there. My wife, Zhanna, graduated from the geophysical department of the Far Eastern University and was given a teacher’s job at a remote school on the border. It’s there that we met and began to spend time together. Soon we got married. Our elder son, Nikita, was born in 1994.

In 1998, the newly founded Border Guard Force Academy opened vacancies for teachers with experience of service in the field and having an academic degree. By that time, I had already defended my post-graduate dissertation and received an invitation along some others. I gladly accepted. It looked like a good chance to me.

I worked a lot but earned little. In the Far East, the monthly food ration of an officer had been of great help. It consisted of 16 kilograms of potatoes, some cereals, and butter. Also, many officers, including myself went fishing. Smelt and Pacific herring in the winter and flatfish and shrimps in the summer.

In Moscow, no food parcels or places to go fishing were available. In fairness, I must say that border guard officers were regularly paid their cash allowances, although rather modest ones. Defense Ministry officers were not getting even that. My friends, my comrades with whom I’d studied at the military academy were leaving the military service by the dozen, because there was no chance to support their families. Cash allowances were running months behind. Very few could stand such degradation.

I remained in the army, although I remember that in September 1998, for instance, I was paid the equivalent of $86. I won’t tell you how much it was in rubles according to the official rate of exchange. I just don’t remember. My wife was a school teacher. We could barely make ends meet.

I was fortunate to do have some odd jobs on the side as an evening lecturer in law at the State University of Public Administration, the New Russian University and other universities in Moscow.

— Was any accommodation provided?

No, we had to find it on our own. We rented a room in an apartment we had to share with neighbors – a large family from Dagestan - decent and intelligent people. The place was a bit crowded but we all got along just fine. Even though it’s been a long time, we still keep in touch and remain on friendly terms. Neither urban congestion nor daily hardships spoiled us. We enjoyed life and had the stamina to carry on, though we never knew what the next day had in store for us.

Part 3
On the job at the Presidential Staff, ruling with an iron fist, ambitions, Maidan and the Bolotnaya square protests

— Now you have a team of your own, don’t you?

I’m in the process of forming one. At my previous job with the Presidential Staff, I succeeded in putting together a team of what I would call co-thinkers. I picked people not on the principle of personal loyalty, but their professional qualities. It was the main selection criterion. I had various specialists by my side. Our common task was to provide support for the president’s activity in the field of inter-regional ties with other countries.

— And how did you get a job with the Presidential Staff?

In the early 2000s, President Putin laid the groundwork for the official migration policy. At that time, I was working on my doctorate. Russia’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region was my subject. I was asked for advice as an expert. Alongside other specialists, I drafted some proposals and recommendations and then presented our vision of the issue and our arguments to the Presidential Staff.

A couple of weeks after my first visit I was invited to the Presidential Staff building at Staraya Square. I thought they wanted to hear more explanations and comments. Instead, I was invited to occupy a post at the Presidential Staff. I was told to make up my mind in three days’ time. I replied that I was ready to accept the proposal right then and there. I was asked not to hurry, though. Therefore, I took the agreed pause and then made a phone call to confirm my consent.

Three months later, I was appointed counsellor at the presidential human resources department.

— What was you military rank when you left the border guard service?

I was promoted to Colonel at 33. At a very early age by military standards. I’d never sought to climb the career ladder. My commanders appreciated my merits. They taught me, helped me and supported all along.

At the Presidential Staff, I became acquainted with different mentors. They were legendary personalities with colossal practical experience! I’m very grateful to them for the knowledge they shared and the experience I gained.

I had to put my doctorate on the back burner, of course. There was no spare time for research.

In 2005, I was asked if I wouldn’t mind transferring to the department for interregional and cultural ties with other countries. Contacts with Central Asia, namely, with Uzbekistan were my primary responsibility. You may remember Andijan, where a crisis broke out that triggered mass unrest. The then Uzbek leader, the late Islam Karimov, acted quickly and efficiently. He issued orders to bring the army into the city. The troops used force against the demonstrators. The attempted uprising was quashed.

Ruined military vehicles in Andijan after the end of the fighting, 2005 Ali Vali/TASS
Ruined military vehicles in Andijan after the end of the fighting, 2005
© Ali Vali/TASS

— I see you like the ‘rule with an iron fist’ strategy.

There can be no universal remedy. Each situation has to be approached in a balanced way. The Andijan unrest and the Tiananmen Square crisis caused casualties, as we’ve already mentioned. The loss of human life is always a tragedy. But if provocative actions had not been nipped in the bud or prevented, I have no doubt that an escalation of tensions would’ve caused tens of millions of fatalities in China and hundreds of thousands in Uzbekistan.

The authorities must be effective and fair. And also firm, if necessary. As for the methods, there is always a wide choice.

— … of what? crackdown tactics?

Instigators have to be punished. Properly.

The herd mentality is a topic for a separate professional discussion. Violent, frenzied people are easy to manipulate. Instigators use this very skillfully. There may be great problems if a crowd is not stopped at the right moment. As for ways of dealing with a crowd, they can vary from persuasion to the use of force.

— Viktor Yanukovich then is certainly not the type of politician you’d point at as an example worth following?

By no means! His last days at the helm of power in Ukraine were a sheer disaster. For his own country and for Russia as well. If only Yanukovich had displayed political will and a combination of firmness and flexibility in the first phase of his confrontation with Maidan, the events would’ve surely taken a different turn. From the outset, all the trump cards were in his hands, but he failed to play them correctly. Greed and duplicity were the two ills that ruined him as a politician. His maneuvering among different centers of power, his attempts to walk between the raindrops had a very bad ending for Ukraine. Perhaps, with the sole exception for those who grabbed power in Kiev in 2014 and still hope to cling to it now by playing the anti-Russian nationalist card.

Anti-government protests in central Kiev, 2014 Yevgeny Maloletka/TASS
Anti-government protests in central Kiev, 2014
© Yevgeny Maloletka/TASS

— What about the Bolotnaya Square protests?

At the beginning of 2012, I was in the Caucasus working on assignments from the chiefs of the Presidential Staff. I was watching the events in Moscow from there with great alarm. Part of society then was very unhappy about the way the situation in the country was unfolding largely because the public didn’t hear any answers to the questions that were worrying them. Various political manipulators took advantage of that situation. Simmering discontent erupted into street protests. In the meantime, the decisions the authorities had taken were absolutely correct, but they failed to be properly explained it to the public at large.

Hence, the conclusion – all questions that people may ask are to be answered clearly and sensibly. Each individual should be aware of the real meaning of any process in the country, be it national projects or some local affairs concerning a specific region.

Any attempt to sweep socially important information under the carpet eventually boomerangs on the authorities. I’ve been able to see this well enough here, at my present job in the North Caucasus. The local people are very sensitive to everything that concerns their region and the whole country in general. Too many are still eager to play the nationalist card, to use any pretext to spark enmity and hatred. Not a single detail should be ignored, because such negligence can be fraught with extremely unpleasant consequences. Or else everything will go up in flames like a dry haystack.

It’s enough to just look back at the two Chechen wars that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakness of the emerging system of public administration in Russia. From the early to mid-1990s, the region failed to get the attention it deserved. Proper contacts were not established with the republic’s elite. Many years of military standoff followed. The effects of this are still being felt. President Vladimir Putin managed to reverse the trend and to lay the groundwork for restoring peace in Chechnya. The role of Chechnya’s first president, Akhmat-haji Kadyrov, who dedicated himself to the peaceful development of Chechnya and its people, was exceptionally great. After his tragic death, Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, took over to continue his cause. Under his guidance, the republic underwent rapid postwar reconstruction, and is moving into the future. To grasp the scale of change, it is enough to visit Chechnya’s capital Grozny, which has literally risen from the ashes.

Alexander Matovnikov, presidential envoy to Russia's North Caucasian Federal District, Archbishop Varlaam of Makhachkala and Grozny, North Caucasus minister Sergei Chebotarev and head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov at a ceremony to open St Barbara Church in Chechnya, 2018 Said Tsarnayev/TASS
Alexander Matovnikov, presidential envoy to Russia's North Caucasian Federal District, Archbishop Varlaam of Makhachkala and Grozny, North Caucasus minister Sergei Chebotarev and head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov at a ceremony to open St Barbara Church in Chechnya, 2018
© Said Tsarnayev/TASS

— With heavy support from the federal government

At a certain stage, extra financing was absolutely reasonable and essential. Currently, Chechnya gets as much federal budget money as all other constituent regions of the North Caucasus Federal District. Chechnya is on the same footing as the others. Naturally, proportionately to its territory, the population and the projects being implemented. I’m talking about the funding provided by the Ministry for the North Caucasus.

True, the scars of war have not healed yet. Memories of the events of 20 years ago are still fresh, but it is only natural. It would be naive to expect anything else.

Time heals, although the region’s problems are still many. For instance, the NCFD’s economic development index is half the Russian average. This lagging behind is to be eliminated fast. The region’s unemployment is still high. True, it has been going down. At the moment it stands at little more than ten percent, which is too much. Russia’s average unemployment rate is four and a half percent of the able-bodied population.

Incomes in the North Caucasus have been growing. In 2018, they were up 15%, but in cash terms, the average wage is 26,000 rubles ($397) – approximately two-thirds of the national average.

Or take school education. School places available are not keeping up with demand. In three republics of the North Caucasus, school pupils have to attend classes in three shifts. Just imagine what it is like. Each schoolboy or schoolgirl spends six or seven hours a day in school. Multiply this by three and it will turn out that classrooms are open round the clock with literally no breaks between shifts. There is no time left for cleaning the floors and getting the classes ready for the next working day. The pressure on teachers is enormous. No room for extra-curricular activities. Only the mandatory program…

For the time being 12,700 boys and girls in the North Caucasus, have to study in three shifts. That’s too many! And the rate keeps growing, because the region’s birth rate is high. Just 18 months ago, the third shift problem concerned 8,500 students. Under the national project Education 50 new schools are going to be built. The funds required have been reserved. We keep in touch with Education Minister Olga Vasilieva. We will be addressing the issue step by step.

Some unaddressed matters remain in the health service. Let’s call a spade a spade: the North Caucasus has had no normal health service until just recently. Even today in order to visit specialists holding certain qualifications, patients have to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg. This costs a lot. Most people cannot afford this. Besides, a situation where you have to board a plane to get medical assistance elsewhere is wrong. Top-notch aid must be available in your hometown. By virtue of natural conditions, the North Caucasus is obliged to create rehabilitation and health resorts. There is every condition for that. For a start, it would be enough to refurbish and upgrade the rest and leisure facilities inherited from the Soviet era. The enormous potential of mineral water springs and medicinal mud baths and other amazing natural therapy methods must be employed more actively. The Caucasian Mineral Waters are obliged to become a world-class health resort!

These are the bottlenecks to be eliminated in the near future.

— Should other republics wait for anti-corruption purges like the one underway in Dagestan? Somebody has already uploaded a “horror film” to the worldwide web about the native land of Senator Arashukov you mentioned earlier…

If you mean the criminal procedures taken by law enforcement and watchdog agencies, I’d say yes, it is exclusively their realm of competence. When there are objective and indisputable facts, they have to be responded to. At the same time, it is essential to scrutinize each case that emerges into the public spotlight. Don’t you see, the purpose is not to arrest a certain number of civil servants after seeing some clip or reading an anonymous Telegram-channel.

I’m sure that a majority of such “horror films,” as you’ve described them, or other posts on the Internet do not pursue not the administration of justice or make the public at large aware of the real state of affairs, but discredit an individual or the job he does. For this purpose, some prefer to fiddle with facts. Only part of these - the least significant part - may be true, while all the rest is fake.

It is important to ensure the anti-corruption campaigns should bring about real changes for the better in people’s lives. A thief whose guilt has been proven must stay in jail. There is nothing else to discuss.

It is likewise true that the system of public administration is to be fine-tuned in all regions of Russia, not just in Dagestan.

— So you’ve been appointed chief fine-tuner. What are your ambitions today?

To do my job well, to cope with my tasks and to live up to the expectations…

I’m not one of those who are obsessed with career growth. For seven years, I was in charge of a department at the Presidential Staff. Then I held the position of deputy chief of a directorate for five years… I kept delving into the nuances until I could feel the situation at my fingertips.

I’ve never had any personal aims. When I was still a Suvorov School cadet, I never had any thoughts of ever becoming a general, in contrast to some of my comrades. I certainly sought to become a good officer, but I never saw big stars on my shoulder epaulets in my dreams at night. Nor were they any obsessions when I was awake.

Once I became a commissioned officer, I never dreamed of taking a position higher than that of the commander of a platoon, company or battalion. And I surely never aimed for the post of general. Perhaps, it is not very good. I really do not know… That’s what I am and it’s too late to change my character.

— In your current position, you are surely a civil service general, according to the official table of ranks.

It is true that the rank of the state counsellor 1st class is equivalent to that of Lieutenant-General or Lieutenant-Colonel, although everybody agrees that this is sheer abstraction. I just don’t care. We are not in the army, are we?

— The more so, since the hot-tempered region you are in charge of can hardly be forced into instant obedience.

This is totally unnecessary. There are federal level issues and there are regional matters. Everybody is responsible for one’s own job. True, we keep working in line with the one-man command principle, but we do that jointly. Together.

— What kind of relations do you have with the leaders of individual republics?

All of them are competent people who are well aware we work for a common cause. For this we need normal, businesslike relationships. That’s how we go about this business. The way I see it, we’ve managed to achieve understanding and trust. It may be too early to say anything about friendship or something like it, but business contacts proceed with clockwork precision. There are no taboos in our discussions.

I find it quite interesting to contact the heads of NCFD territories. Each of them is a unique personality. This is not a hackneyed phrase or a token of respect. This is so in reality.

Part 4
On toasting traditions, lessons learned in the Caucasus, rhetoric skills and sudden emergence into the limelight

— Have you mastered the skill of uttering sophisticated drinking toasts?

I won’t dare to compete in this genre. It would’ve been too reckless of me, had I tried. As far as cuisine is concerned, I am a worthy rival in cooking some dishes. Normally, my wife runs the show in the kitchen, but I can put an apron on and take the commanding position in front of the stove once in a while, too. My relatives and friends who have had the opportunity to try my culinary experiments tell me that the meat and chicken dishes I cooked according Caucasian recipes are one of my strengths. When I served in Central Asia, I learned to make pilaf. And I still remember the correct way of cooking the main Chinese dishes or to making a real delicacy from fern. I learned it back in the days that I spent in the Far East. In reality, I have no very special secrets. I always stick to one simple rule: it is not enough to strictly follow the recipe. If you want a meal to taste good, you should put your heart into it. Caucasian cuisine is a real pleasure.

— What sports do you do, if any at all?

Finding a spare moment is problem number one! My working day starts early and ends extremely late. On Sundays, I do the honorary chore of buying food for the coming week. First, I jot down a list my wife dictates to me and then go the market.

Occasionally, the whole family goes on a picnic, but such days are very rare. The elder son, Nikita, lives an adult life of his own. The younger boy, Ivan, is 12. He is a very inquisitive and jovial fellow, but still too young to be able to control himself in all situations. One day he was caught red-handed playing a game on his smartphone at school. Now he has to go to school armed with an ordinary mobile with buttons. He hates it, but my wife and I are unanimous that it should be this way. May he grow up first and learn to control himself and his emotions. He is allowed to play smartphone games only at home and for no more than one hour a day.

— Do you go Alpine skiing?

I’m going to try. To be able to personally inspect North Caucasus health resorts. I’m joking, of course, as you may have guessed. Right now, I’m faced with far more important tasks than taking Alpine skiing lessons.

As for driving, I got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle for the first time in a long while. I really enjoy driving, but opportunities for this are very rare today. Of all the long rides that I’ve made in recent years, I can recall a trip to the Don River area in search of family roots. I drove about 2,500 kilometers then. It was an enjoyable experience.

The vehicle I learned to drive was the mechanized infantry combat vehicle BMP-1 in the Amur Region. Instruction proceeded at air temperatures of about 40 degrees below zero. I had to wear a thick warm overcoat, felt boots and fur gloves. The frost was deadly.

Then I learned to drive tanks, a four-wheel-drive UAZ-469 jeep and a six-wheel drive army truck, a ZIL-131. I drove the latter during my license test. And my first private car was a used Volkswagen-Passat. I bought it in 2005, if I’m not wrong, when I already worked at the Presidential Staff.

— You say you’ve had the opportunity to deal with South Ossetian and Abkhazian affairs quite often.

I had been in touch with the leaders of both republics up to May 2014, when I still was with the Presidential Staff. I believe that both republics are our reliable strategic allies.

 Minister of North Caucasus Affairs Sergei Chebotarev and South Ossetian president Anatoly Bibilov Press Service of Minister for North Caucasus Affairs
Minister of North Caucasus Affairs Sergei Chebotarev and South Ossetian president Anatoly Bibilov
© Press Service of Minister for North Caucasus Affairs

— I suspect such comments of yours won’t be welcome in Georgia.

I’m hardly bothered by this at all. Many Georgians are my good and true friends, who never mix personal relations with politics. We still keep in touch. Not in the official way, of course. What has happened between the Georgians and the Abkhazians and Ossetians was a great tragedy. It will be settled sooner or later. There is just no other way.

— But in Tbilisi you are persona non grata.

Let us make a little reservation: for the time being. Everything will change for the better and we are destined to see this happen. Our peoples must be friends and they will be friends.

— What customs and habits that you’ve discovered in the Caucasus are worth borrowing and following?

Above all, diplomacy in inter-ethnic relations. Any native of the Caucasus is destined to be a diplomat. There is no other way of surviving in a macro-region that is home to more than 140 ethnic groups. If you have no respect for other ethnic groups who speak different languages, problems will be more than guaranteed. Everybody is aware of this and tries to stay politically correct.

In the Caucasus, the people habitually feel sincere and deep respect for senior citizens. They honor traditions and customs. They take care of the relatives and dear ones. They never abandon others in times of trouble under any circumstance. They never break their word of honor. Also, they know how to achieve their goals.

In fact, I can go on like this for quite a while.

During a business trip to Stavropol region, 2019 Press Service of Minister for North Caucasus Affairs
During a business trip to Stavropol region, 2019
© Press Service of Minister for North Caucasus Affairs

Much of what I’ve noticed there I would like to see in my own family. I believe it is extremely important to remember and speak about one’s roots. Now I’m reading a book on the history of the Cossacks, written by Colonel Andrei Gordeyev, of the Don Cossack Host, who emigrated in 1920. He collected a large amount of documents and testimonies, now published in four volumes. It’s a fundamental historical study. I can recommend it to all who may be interested.

— Have you been accepted into the Cossack community?

Definitely. In the village of Starocherkasskaya, in the lower reaches of the Don River several years ago. After the induction ceremony, I was presented with a Cossack cap and had to take a shot of vodka from a glass placed on a Cossack sword…

Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don is one of my favorite books. At home, I keep many editions of it, including some very old and rare ones.

Gordeyev’s book on the history of the Cossacks is a present from my son Nikita. Both my boys know who their great granddads and granddads were. I’ve even drawn a family tree to show what I’ve managed to find out about the family’s past. I cannot say that I unearthed very much on my father’s side, though. No information is available about any ancestors of my granddad Mikhail I’ve already told you about, although I dug through the Rostov archive and requested information from other places. The church books in the village of Kazanskaya were destroyed in the 1920s.

Nikita was fortunate enough to hear some family stories first hand from my parents when they were still alive. My father died in 2008 and my mother passed away just recently, last October. A massive heart attack in the middle of the night. The ambulance could not help.

— Where did you son study?

Nikita graduated from the Higher School of Economics. That he secured admission there was entirely his own merit. While studying he decided to take a break and go to serve in the army. He went to a draft station of his own accord and said he would like to fulfill his civic duty. He was drafted into the Interior Ministry Troops. Zhanna, my wife, was very nervous at first.

— Did you go to visit your son while he was in the army?

Certainly. For several months, Nikita and his fellows were near Kazan, which was then hosting the Universiade. Then he returned to the Moscow Region. He has since finished his studies at HSE (Higher School of Economics) and got a job as a programmer. He is eager to achieve everything on his own, without my involvement. I’m very happy about this.

— What kind of feeling did you have when you had to emerge into the limelight? After all, a Presidential Staff official is not a very public personality. Now you have to appear in front of TV cameras now and then.

Don’t forget, I was a lecturer once, so I’m accustomed to public speaking and addressing large audiences. I must admit, though, that my current status has certain specific features… I don’t deliver lectures, but express my thoughts aloud. Moreover, Caucasians are good orators. They can speak eloquently and quite often, they form an opinion of their conversation partner depending on how well he can verbally express his own thoughts.

I must admit that at first, I did feel somewhat uneasy, but I’ve been gradually adjusting myself. Public speaking is an art, just like any other. It can be studied and polished. I have no time to take rhetoric classes, though, so I have to master the skill on the fly. Also, I have my experience and intuition to rely on. They helped me out many times.

It is important to meet each other in public and exchange good ideas. Good ideas entail good deeds. For discussing the crucial issues of the North Caucasus and the Caucasus in general we are going to hold what may become the first Caucasus International Economic forum at KavMinVody (Caucasus Mineral Waters) in the autumn.

— Do you think that the Sochi investment forum is not enough?

The Sochi forum is a federal scale event, yet we plan to put the emphasis on regional affairs. The economy of the North Caucasus is still patchy and it has to be developed. The region needs a reliable platform where the heads of territories, experts and local and visiting businessmen, as well as federal officials might get together to share problems and look for sensible solutions to outstanding issues. In that case, the forum will cope with its mission.

— Have any dates been determined?

We’ve set our eyes on November. Let me point out: it’s going to be a Caucasus forum. We hope that our neighbors from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will agree to participate.

— Do you think this will be possible?

Economic relations will be economic relations. Business should not depend on politics.

There’ve been some remarkable ideas concerning the forum. Turkey, Iran, China and a number of Arab countries have shown interest. The situation is very dynamic. There is much work ahead.

— Will you speak about gas at the forum?

I will. And not only at the forum. And not only about gas, but running water, too.

Andrey Vandenko