Prague, 15 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There are still three years to go to Russia's next presidential election, but Vladimir Putin yesterday restarted Moscow's rumor mill with his biggest set of high-level personnel changes in five years.
Speculation was rife in the Russian media today. Does this really mean that Vladimir Putin will abide by the Russian Constitution and not run for a third term? Is he preparing the ground for Dmitrii Medvedev -- young, personable, ambitious, and a liberal -- to succeed him? Or is the real emerging powerhouse Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, whose new portfolio apparently extends to cover not just the armed forces, but the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry as well?
Putin left little room for doubt about the importance of Medvedev's new role.
"I told you at the very outset that essential work must be concentrated in the government of the Russian Federation," Putin said. "For that reason, I have accepted the proposal of the prime minister of the government of the Russian Federation, and Dmitrii Andreevich Medvedev will move to the government as first deputy prime minister."
Medvedev comes to the cabinet with solid knowledge of the energy sector. As chairman of the gas giant Gazprom, Medvedev has a reputation as a good administrator and a growing reputation as a sound policy innovator.
And, as Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, points out, he is joining the government at a good time.
"Now Medvedev, who used to oversee national projects and control over the government's work, will now do this in a more official capacity," Petrov said. "He will gain visibility and become famous and popular since the government is facing a relatively pleasant time because all negative things and reforms have been either halted or postponed."
But is Medvedev being groomed for power or merely being tested to see whether he has what it takes?
Policy innovation under Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has stagnated. Medvedev has reportedly been told to focus on the key areas of health, education, construction, and agriculture.
Putin has given Medvedev plenty of rope to play with. The risk for the new man is that he may hang on it. Success, on the other hand, will leave him well placed to take over from Fradkov at a time when money is pouring into the government coffers, largely because of high oil prices.
But if the succession is what is on Putin's mind, many observers have suggested he has played a balanced hand.
Sergei Ivanov's promotion to deputy prime minister is thought to be reward for his relatively successful tenure as defense minister. It is recognition, too, that a firm hand is needed to control the rivalry between the military and other law-enforcement agencies. Putin spelled it out clearly on Russian television.
"At the meeting of the Defense Ministry last week, the participants in the meeting expressed concern about the problems faced by the Russian Defense Ministry in carrying through its development plan," Putin said. "The prime minister has proposed that Sergei Borisovich Ivanov be appointed deputy prime minister to improve coordination in this sphere."
The consensus among most observers -- and Svyatoslav Kaspe, chief analyst at the Russian Public Policy Center is no exception -- is that the appointments give new shape to the race to succeed Putin.
"These are people who have long been recognized by the masses as belonging to Putin's team and who both figured on the shortlist of potential successors to Putin," Kaspe said. "We can therefore suppose that their appointment to equivalent positions signals the start of a new stage -- the public casting of pretenders to the role of successor."
These are, of course, early days. Much could change between now and 2008, but Western observers will be watching closely to see where Putin moves from here.