Vladimir Putin has fired the veteran head of the Kremlin's Human Rights Council together with four members of the advisory body known for their outspoken criticism of the Russian authorities.
The Russian president signed a decree dismissing the council head Mikhail Fedotov on Monday and named Valery Fadeev, a former state television host and a member of the ruling United Russia party, as his replacement. Mr Fedotov, who turned 70 in September, had reached the retirement age for state servants, the decree said.
No reason was given for the ousting of four other members of the HRC, including a university professor, a human rights activist, an electoral law expert and a political commentator. All four of have shown support for anti-government protests that have happened with increasing frequency since the start of Mr Putin’s fourth presidential term a year and a half ago.
Founded 25 years ago, the HRC is dedicated to defending democratic freedoms in Russian, but as Mr Putin’s style of rule has grown more repressive it has gained a reputation as a toothless advisory body that soft pedals when criticising the authorities.
Mr Fedotov, a law professor who has headed the HRC since 2010, has often raised controversial questions at the council’s annual meetings with Mr Putin, and complained about the introduction of restrictive public meetings legislation and the harsh tactics of the security services. However, his recommendation for a more moderate approach have not halted the Kremlin’s slide towards authoritarianism.
Political commentators said Mr Fedotov’s successor, Mr Fadeev, understands that Mr Putin requires undivided loyalty from public servants and the HRC under his stewardship will emerge as another government propaganda tool.
The HRC has been planning to use its next meeting with Mr Putin in December to raise questions about the police crackdown on this summer's political demonstrations in Moscow and complain about the unfair prosecution of protesters on charges of "mass rioting" that never took place. But the agenda will likely change in the wake of the reshuffle, according to Andrei Pertsev, a political commentator at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
For the Kremlin, the prosecutions are a lesson for others not to take to the streets, he wrote. “The opinions of some members of the Human Rights Council who don’t consider Moscow protests to be mass riots are superfluous to requirements.”
More than half of the HRC's 50 members wrote a letter last week appealing to Mr Putin to extend Mr Fedotov's term. But, in a sign of the times, there has been no open rebellion about the dismissals. With the exception of Russian constitutional court judge Tamara Morshchakova, who resigned from the HRC this week, staff appear willing to accept their new boss in order to hang on to their jobs.
Yekaterina Shulman, a political scientist, said her dismissal after less than a year at the HRC was “a weight off her shoulders”, freeing her from the moral obligation to “take torturous decisions” or stage a demonstrative walkout. Life would become more difficult for HRC members left behind, she added.