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Russia: Analysts Assess Kremlin Reshuffle

By Jeremy Bransten and Sophie Lambroschini

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday made substantial changes in his government, replacing the interior and defense ministers -- among other cabinet officials -- with close personal associates. Putin said the moves would advance plans for military reform and what he called the "demilitarization" of Russian public life. RFE/RL correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Jeremy Bransten spoke with analysts who assess the new cabinet line-up.

Prague, 29 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say President Putin's government reshuffle yesterday further consolidates his grip on power. But they are uncertain about whether this will mean significant changes in Russian government policies.

Putin himself emphasized that the two top people at the Defense Ministry, as well as the head of the Interior Ministry, will now be civilians.

"As you see, in key positions in military bodies, civilians are appearing. This has been done deliberately. It is a step towards the demilitarization of Russian society."

But analysts say the reshuffle promoted people closely associated with Putin, while officials associated with former President Boris Yeltsin were downgraded. They point out that although new Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is now a civilian, he had previously served for 20 years in the Soviet and Russian security services -- where he was a colleague of Putin -- rising to the rank of general in the KGB.

Ivanov is seen as Putin's most-trusted ally, precisely because of bonds formed during their joint KGB work.

Michael McFaul, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, notes that Vladimir Rushailo's replacement as interior minister by Boris Gryzlov -- who heads the pro-Kremlin Unity faction in the Duma -- is also important.

"It's a further consolidation of Putin's power over ministries where he previously did not have his people in place. Both the interior appointment and the appointments at the Ministry of Defense -- these are now loyalists to Mr. Putin. Rushailo, especially, was a holdover from [businessman Boris] Berezovsky's clan, so that's a big change and important in terms of Putin's consolidation."

McFaul says the new line-up can be seen as a more modern government, one in which ministers are appointed due to political loyalty instead of shady financial interests. As an example, he points to the ouster of Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who had been plagued by a conflict-of-interest scandal related to his commercial work.

"I do believe it's a kind of modernization of the way the government is run. It's not a bunch of fiefdoms, as it was the last couple of years. And it's the same with the Ministry of Atomic Energy. Each one of these ministers, basically, was an autonomous agent. Now you're seeing a much more political government and you know, I think that's a good thing, not a bad thing."

Speaking to RFE/RL last night, opposition Duma deputy Sergei Ivanenko, of the Yabloko faction, pointed to another sign that Putin is succeeding in imposing his own team. Ivanenko noted that despite the major changes, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is regarded as a Yeltsin-man, was left completely out of the picture yesterday.

"In essence, this is a government of Putin, who is in reality the government's head. He directly controls all of his ministers and in this sense the fact Kasyanov was not mentioned once today is very revealing."

But will the change in government mean a change in policy? Putin clearly implied sweeping changes. He said yesterday that the reshuffle was prompted by the situation in the North Caucasus and the need get on with a long-awaited military reform. Yet all the officials responsible for waging Russia's latest war in Chechnya are still in place, albeit in different posts.

Moscow-based defense analyst Francoise Deauce sees some hope that new Defense Minister Ivanov can shake up the military.

"He is someone who is outside the armed forces, who has a lot of authority -- notably from his [earlier] posts inside the security services -- and so maybe he can impose decisions on the army that it might see as going against its interests. In other words, he may be capable of fighting the corporatism of the military institutions that until now was largely responsible for braking successive attempts at military reforms since 1991."

Stephan De Spiegeleire, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Europe policy think-tank, is more pessimistic. He says the equation is very simple: until the war in Chechnya is ended, no significant reforms can be expected, no matter what appointments Putin makes from his inner circle.

"Let's face it: the fundamentals around this are that, economically, Russia is in no position to make any kind of a change -- whether it's inspired by the KGB or anything else -- with a military budget of $8 billion that continues to be cannibalized by this war [in Chechnya]. There isn't really very much room for anybody to start behaving in a radically different way."

By contrast, the United States' annual military budget is close to $300 billion.

It is noteworthy that newly named Defense Minister Ivanov indicated today there would be no "revolution" in military reforms, adding that any changes would be gradual. Military reforms such as streamlining and reorganizing the army, strict reduction of personnel, and the introduction of a professional rather than conscript army have been announced for the past decade as indispensable to cut costs and adapt to new realities. But they have never been implemented.

Analysts say that while yesterday's moves indicate Putin is strengthening his hand, the reshuffling of a few key cabinet members will not in itself guarantee meaningful reforms. Divisive factions that existed in the upper echelons of the Russian government and the military before Putin came to power still exist. Analyst De Spiegeleire argues that Putin may have a harder time imposing his authority on the machinery of government than his predecessors, as he still lacks their political power base.

"The infighting that's going on -- that has been going on for a very long time -- hasn't stopped just because Putin came in. There may be some different interest groups that are involved right now but the main fact that -- also within the military -- there are some clans that keep fighting is not going to change by the mere appointment of Ivanov. Unlike previous leaders of Russia, or the Soviet Union, who grew up as first [communist party] secretaries and had a huge cadre of people around them, Putin doesn't have it."

President Putin has often been a man of bold words, and those words yesterday appeared to be reinforced by political action. But whether this will now translate into a new course for Russia is still too early to forecast.