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Russia: Fradkov, The New But Unknown Prime Minister, May Suit Putin's Purposes Perfectly

Mikhail Fradkov, who is likely to be confirmed by parliament as Russia's new prime minister on 5 March, is promising to trim the government and broaden economic reforms. Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his country and the world by naming the low-profile official to the post on 1 March. What could have motivated Putin to make the appointment, and why is he pushing for his new premier's confirmation just days before Russia's presidential elections?

Prague, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is a measure of Russian President Vladimir Putin's success at centralizing power that his nominee for prime minister -- a man who two days ago figured on no one's list of likely candidates -- looks set to be confirmed soon by parliament as Russia's new premier.

The speaker of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, has already signaled that members of the pro-presidential Unified Russia party, which holds a two-thirds majority in the chamber, will raise their hands for Fradkov when his name comes up for a vote on 5 March. This leaves analysts -- who are still recovering from the surprise of Fradkov's unexpected nomination -- to ponder why Putin named him to the post in the first place and why just two weeks before Russia's presidential election.

"I think we do see a move away from the White House, towards the Kremlin. And I think Fradkov is a very likely person to oversee this shift."
Putin's decision to sack the previous prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, on 24 February had long been expected. Kasyanov was too closely associated with Russia's previous president, Boris Yeltsin, and with certain business circles. Putin has preferred instead to draw his allies from the ranks of the so-called "siloviki," or security services. Relations between the two men went from bad to worse over the Yukos affair last year, when Kasyanov openly questioned the prosecutor-general's decision to press charges against Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

As Andrei Piontkovskii, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, explains: "A steady worsening of relations between Putin and Kasyanov had been noticeable over the past six months. This was tied to Kasyanov's independent position on the Yukos case. More than once, he clearly expressed his disagreement with the actions of the Prosecutor-General's Office -- actions which had obviously been approved and coordinated with Putin."

Removing Kasyanov just before the presidential election offers at least two advantages to Putin. It sends a signal to voters and still-influential members of the so-called Yeltsin "family" that the highly popular Russian president is no longer beholden to anyone. And in case of low voter turnout in the March 14 presidential poll -- which some analysts forecast due to the lackluster campaign and lack of genuine competition -- Putin has sidelined Kasyanov as a potential rival.

Under Russia's electoral law, if voter turnout in the presidential race is less than 50 percent, the poll must be declared invalid and the election held again. If this were to happen, Kasyanov as prime minister could have decided to declare his own candidacy and -- backed by money from the business elites, known as the "oligarchs" -- mounted a challenge to Putin. That risk has diminished now that he has been cast aside.

When he named Fradkov to succeed Kasyanov, Putin told voters he wanted them to have an idea about the kind of government they would be getting if they re-elect him as president for a second term.

The irony, of course, is that Fradkov is practically unknown to Russian voters. In his various postings at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and, most recently, as Moscow's envoy to the European Union in Brussels, Fradkov has become better known outside Russia than domestically. But that may suit Putin's purposes perfectly.

The gray-suited, balding Fradkov is a reassuring figure to the European Union -- Russia's biggest trading partner -- at a time when Moscow is eager to further develop ties with the bloc. EU ministers can look at Fradkov's diplomatic background and his term at the helm of the Foreign Trade Ministry under Yeltsin and feel reassured that they are dealing with an economic reformer.

At home, meanwhile, Fradkov has little personal charisma and no significant power base from which to challenge the Kremlin. That will make him Putin's loyal servant and the perfect candidate to push through planned painful reforms of Russia's housing and communal services sectors.

"Fradkov is a convenient figure,” Piontkovskii says. “On the one hand, he is totally malleable. By orientation and origin, he is close to the security services [siloviki] and, as many experts suspect, a former KGB operative in his youth. But on the other hand, he does have an image as a member of [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin's liberal government. And the West has taken his appointment as a positive signal."

Analyst Stephan De Spiegeleire, of the RAND Europe think tank in the Netherlands, says Fradkov's appointment marks another milestone in Putin's efforts to concentrate power in the Kremlin.

Last December's Duma elections effectively turned the chamber into a rubber-stamp parliament -- with pro-Kremlin parties gaining a two-thirds majority. Now, Fradkov's appointment will turn the government -- headquartered at the so-called White House -- into a rubber-stamp cabinet.

"If you want to put it against a broader background, I do think this signals a move towards a much stronger presidential regime in Russia. So far, it's still a semipresidential regime. The person of the prime minister, theoretically, does have certain competencies that could build him up into an alternative power base to the president. With this kind of an appointment and also with the real commissions for reform being positioned very squarely within the Kremlin rather than the White House, I think we do see a move away from the White House, towards the Kremlin. And I think Fradkov is a very likely person to oversee this shift."

Fradkov has already indicated that he will submit a plan to the Kremlin to shrink the number of ministries and departments in a bid to streamline the process of government. In a meeting with the Russian president today he made it clear the Kremlin is calling the shots.

"I have held consultations with all the [Duma] factions. The deputies expressed a keen interest in the critical issues, both economic and social, of how to organize the work of the government. They expressed their views on how to make its work more dynamic, on how to bring in more actions to achieve the goals put forward in the president's message [to the Federal Assembly] -- that is, to double the [gross domestic product] and to improve competitiveness."

If all goes according to plan, Putin will begin his second term at the peak of his power, with a loyal parliament and self-effacing premier ready to do his bidding. But some commentators caution against underestimating the new prime minister over the longer term. Fradkov's career in the upper echelons of the Soviet and Russian bureaucracy marks him as a survivor. And Putin, they note, when he was initially tipped by Yeltsin to become prime minister and later to succeed him as president, was also most often characterized as a bland bureaucrat -- best suited to following orders. How times have changed.