Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- No one seems to question why Vladimir Putin decided to sack his government three weeks before he runs for re-election. What they really want to know is -- who will be the next prime minister?
Putin, who announced the dismissal yesterday, pledged to inform the public of his new appointments as soon as possible. "I believe it right not to wait until the end of the election campaign, and to announce right away the staff of the highest state executive structure that is going to take on its share responsibility for the further development of our country," he said.
The Russian president, however, has yet to name either a new prime minister or outline major goals for the second term he is highly likely to win. The president has just two weeks to announce a replacement government. Moreover, the cabinet may be shuffled yet again after the election, when the government must resign according to Russian law.
"It does not matter who heads it. That is why I think that it will be --- as it was in the past --- the president's government, not the country's government."
Analysts say the surprise dismissal may have been the natural outcome of long-standing enmity between Putin and his ousted prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. They also say the move may have been timed to boost public interest in the 14 March election. The presidential vote needs at least a 50 percent turnout to be declared valid. Voter apathy may be the only threat to Putin's re-election bid.
But Sergei Ivanenko, one of the leaders of the liberal Yabloko party, says the dismissal raises many questions beyond mere motive. "The main issue today, in fact, is not the reasons for the government dismissal. The reasons may be various -- both substantial and personal," he said. "But the main, really important question is, What will the new government be like? In that sense, the president's words raise more questions than answers."
With no official information forthcoming for now, the Russian media have been busy discussing potential candidates, suggesting Putin is looking to anoint his political heir. Possibilities include the liberal-leaning Aledrei Kudrin, the deputy prime minister and finance minister. A more hard-line option is Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
The "Vedomosti" business daily, meanwhile, quoted an unnamed Kremlin source as saying the nominee will be a "quite uncommon person" whose name has not been mentioned in the media frenzy.
Ivanenko says no matter how "uncommon" the candidate, the Kremlin's policy will remain much what it is now -- Putin's policy. "Frankly speaking, I hardly believe in Russia's current conditions -- when one party has a monopoly in politics, when the mass media is being suppressed, when there is no independent judiciary or independent business -- that a relatively independent government can be imagined," he said. "It does not matter who heads it. That is why I think that it will be --- as it was in the past --- the president's government, not the country's government."
Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovskii is even more blunt. "The person who will be appointed will be openly close to the community of security services -- the so-called siloviki. That will follow the course that has already been revealed over the past few months -- the replacement of Yeltsin's generation of oligarchs with the so-called patriotically oriented people who come from special services," he said.
Russia's near neighbors are watching the changes with interest, if not particular concern. Viktor Khristenko, the acting prime minister, is due to travel to Kazakhstan tomorrow. Kazakh Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov says his government does not expect any drastic changes in its relations with Russia. "Our relations in politics as well as in the economic sphere will only expand," he said.
Azimbay Ghali, a Kazakh political analyst, echoes the sentiment, saying changes in the Russian cabinet will not force a similar government purge in Astana. "It will not affect us,” he said. “We have our own political climate. There were few reformers among Kazakh premiers; we can mention only [former Prime Minister Akezhan] Kazhegeldin and Akhmetov as such. That is why I think Danial Akhmetov's government will not step down in the foreseeable future. But surely there will be some changes, a team shake-up, after the [Kazakh] parliamentary elections [this fall]."
In Tajikistan, Deputy Foreign Minister Salohiddin Nasriddinov said relations with Russia will be unaffected by the change. "Tajikistan and Russia are strategic partners. Bilateral relations with Russia remain our priority and despite any changes in the Russian government, our partnership remains unchanged like before," he said.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Tajik services contributed to this report.)