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Russia: Putin Reshuffles His Cabinet, But What Do The Changes Mean?

  • Jeremy Bransten --> A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wanted voters to know what kind of government they would be getting if they re-elect him in 14 March elections. With the announcement of yesterday's cabinet reshuffle, voters know the names of those who now have Putin's favor. But does the new, more compact government differ significantly from the old one?

Prague, 10 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday unveiled his new cabinet, just five days before Russia's voters head to the ballot box to vote for a head of state.

The fact that Putin announced the new government lineup on the eve of his re-election bid is the clearest signal so far that the Russian president has little doubt he will continue to govern Russia for a second four-year term.

"There is a clear attempt to break through the wall of bureaucracy."
According to Russia's constitution, ministers will have to tender their resignations following the presidential election. But Putin made it clear that if he is re-elected, as expected, the newly restructured cabinet will be the one to work alongside him.

The two most apparent changes are the size of the new cabinet -- Putin slashed the number of cabinet-level positions from 30 to 17 -- and the replacement of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov with Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov, a 10-year veteran of the United Nations, is well-known and respected abroad.

So does Ivanov's replacement augur a change in Russia's foreign policy?

Sergei Markov heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin. He tells RFE/RL not to expect a major shift in Russian foreign policy.

"The change of Russian foreign ministers will not alter Russia's foreign policy. What kind of change did we get? One career diplomat -- Igor Ivanov -- has been replaced by another career diplomat -- Sergei Lavrov. This means that Russia's foreign policy will remain, above all, the policy of the president, which is formulated in the presidential administration by Putin's closest advisers," Markov said.

Indeed, Markov notes, Lavrov is by nature a consummate diplomat who has never revealed his personal political preferences and who can be expected to continue implementing the president's policies.

"Sergei Lavrov does not have his own political positions. He has never expressed them. He is a diplomatic technocrat," Markov said.

Ivanov himself will not disappear from the scene. As the new head of the Security Council -- an advisory body to the president -- he can be expected to continue to counsel Putin on foreign policy and will likely raise the profile of the body.

Looking at the overall changes in the Russian cabinet, it is clear that they aim to further centralize power in the president and his advisers while also attempting to create a more efficient structure of government.

Putin has repeatedly spoken of the need to eliminate redundant government agencies and simplify the chain of command to facilitate reforms and eliminate turf battles among bureaucrats. The consolidation of several ministries into so-called "super ministries" appears geared toward this aim.

The former Nuclear Power Ministry will be folded into the Defense Ministry, for example. The influential Press Ministry, once headed by Mikhail Lesin, will merge with the Culture Ministry. The newly empowered Finance Ministry will now run five previously autonomous federal agencies. A new, giant Transport and Communications Ministry will also be created out of an assortment of former ministries and agencies.

The new prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, will have only one deputy -- former lawmaker Aleksandr Zhukov -- unlike his predecessor, who had six.

Analysts expect Putin's new chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak -- a close confidant of the president from his St. Petersburg days -- to exert strong influence and ensure that the Kremlin's orders are closely implemented.

Aleksandr Konovalov, of Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessments, says the new cabinet structure does offer cause for optimism. He points to the fact that reformers have been left in charge of economic policy and will have their powers strengthened thanks to the consolidation of ministries.

"I would note that the 'economic bloc' has remained in the hands of people with clear liberal tendencies -- and [Energy and Industry Minister Viktor] Khristenko's hand has even been strengthened," Konovalov said.

Konovalov says Putin's restructuring can be seen as an attempt to downsize Russia's fabled bureaucracy, which has continued to proliferate. Russia now has more civil servants than the former Soviet Union. But whether a leaner government lineup will translate into cuts lower down in the chain of command remains to be seen.

"There is a clear attempt to break through the wall of bureaucracy. If this is going to be successful or not is very hard to predict, as there are many other aspects of the political situation in the country that don't inspire optimism," Konovalov said.

To sum up, Konovalov sees Putin's shake-up as an indication that the Russian leader is looking to posterity after a first term spent consolidating his power. This is a pattern followed by many world leaders, he notes.

"The first term is spent to ensure re-election to a second term. The [president] tries to consolidate his position. In his second term, the president is thinking about what mark he will leave on history," Konovalov said.

Analysts expect more announcements on restructuring at lower levels of the Russian government in the days following the 14 March presidential election.