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Russia: New Government Maintains Links To Oligarchs

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's new government is now almost complete, and it looks rather similar to the old Yeltsin-era government. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports that some Russian analysts fear that this continuity of personnel will mean a continuation of the same style and policies as before.

Moscow, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "This government is not being formed around a unifying idea but, as always, it reflects the importance of not only public but behind-the-scenes politics."

That is the complaint lodged on the front page of the Russian daily "Kommersant" today.

Now that President Vladimir Putin's new government, under Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, is almost complete, most Russian observers are noting that it is little different from its predecessor. Two-thirds of the new government's members served in the outgoing government formed a year ago under Boris Yeltsin. The most powerful ministers retained their posts, including the interior, defense and foreign ministers, and the head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. And people with close ties to the business tycoons known as oligarchs are, again, well-represented in the government.

There are, however, some new faces in the Russian government. The most notable among them is think-tank director German Gref, who has been appointed to the new post of economic development minister. A native, like Putin, of Saint Petersburg, Gref is head of the Center for Strategic Development, an institution created by Putin last fall to work out a long-term economic strategy for Russia.

Gref's center has offered an ambitious blueprint that includes a tight budget and strict tax and banking reforms. In recent weeks, media reports had claimed that Gref's role in developing economic policy was diminishing. And new Prime Minister Kasyanov was said to be downplaying the importance of the economic blueprint.

But Denis Rodionov, an analyst with the investment bank Brunswick-Warburg, says the appointment of Gref is an encouraging sign for the Russian economy. Another good sign, he says, is the appointment of Aleksei Kudrin as finance minister.

Other observers, however, point out that both Kudrin and Gref have ties to Anatoly Chubais, the powerful head of Russia's electricity monopoly. The government also includes many associates of another powerful tycoon -- Boris Berezovsky. Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, and Kasyanov himself are widely believed to be close to Berezovsky.

Yevgeny Volk is a political analyst with Russia's Heritage Fund. He says the inclusion in the government of representatives of different powerful clans is a sure sign that the influence of the oligarchs will be as great under Putin as it was under Yeltsin. "The appointments that were made were expected, and reflect the behind-the-scenes fight for power and, especially, the economic positions of the different oligarchs' groups. Seen this way, one can call it a coalition government, since representatives of the Berezovsky-Abramovich group are included, and the Chubais clan is also present," Volk said.

Yeltsin's tactic of divide and conquer had him playing one clan against the other with the president as the arbitrator. While this tactic kept Yeltsin in power, it also prevented the divided government from working efficiently.

Volk says Putin seems to be following Yeltsin's example. But he says Putin is stronger than his predecessor and will probably have more success in playing off the oligarchs against each other.

Other observers, however, say the new government structure marks a departure from the Yeltsin past. Analyst Rodionov says the elimination of the post of first deputy prime minister may be a sign that Putin actually wants the government to stop its internal feuding and work as a unit:

"[Under Yeltsin], there was always a prime minister and, at the same time, a very powerful deputy prime minister who created a second center of authority -- and struggles occurred between the two ministers and their subordinates. The elimination of the office of first deputy prime minister is a positive factor, indicating that the government will be more unified."

Political analyst Sergei Markov also notes that this new government under Putin will play a much diminished role. Under Yeltsin, prime ministers were strong, leading figures -- even if they were changed frequently. Under Putin, Markov says, the center of power has clearly shifted toward the presidential administration:

"The strategy of this cabinet will not be worked out by the prime minister and his allies but by some outside strategic group. In this way, the cabinet becomes a coherent enough team of technocrats that will have to play the role of an effective mechanism capable of implementing Putin's ambitious restructuring plans."

Still, the presence of so many ministers connected to the oligarchs casts doubt on Putin's ability or willingness to carry out one key element of his reform plan -- to weaken the tycoons' influence on policy.