President Vladimir Putin effects a complete change of government on the eve of the presidential election in a move that has rekindled voter interest and confirmed his control over Russian politics.in Moscow
IN a sudden move Russian President Vladimir Putin expelled Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the entire Cabinet from office on February 24, just weeks before the March 14 presidential election. The reason for this move is thought to be Putin's desire to appoint a new team that will reflect his vision for the country in his second term, a team that will be instrumental in setting into motion the much-needed economic and administrative reforms. Normally government formation follows elections, but in Putin's unique brand of governance government formation can begin even before the polls.
In a televised address to the nation, Putin said: "In accordance with Article 117 of the Russian Constitution, I have decided today that the government is to resign. This decision is not related to any evaluation of the activities of the previous government, which on the whole I consider satisfactory." He declared further that "this decision was dictated by a desire to outline once again my position regarding the country's course of development after March 14." Putin is aware that the election is already won. This confidence would have prompted him to make such a move.
Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko was declared the acting Prime Minister. Constitutionally, Putin is required to send his nominee for the Prime Minister's post to the Duma within two weeks for its assent.
Meanwhile, there was considerable speculation in Moscow about who would be the next Prime Minister. There were several names in circulation, and prominent among them was that of acting Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a technocrat and an economic reformist. Khristenko's name also did the rounds, as also the names of acting Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, former Interior Minister and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, two hardline deputy heads of the presidential administration, Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov.
However, on March 1, Putin nominated a dark horse for the post upsetting the calculations of the political elite and strategists in Moscow. It was Putin's European Union (E.U.) envoy and a former head of the Federal Tax Police Service Mikhail Fradkov who was the new Prime Minister.
Fradkov, 53, is a relatively insignificant political figure with a civil service background. He has served as a foreign trade official during the Soviet era. He held the post of an economic adviser in the Soviet embassy in India. In the 1990s he served as a Trade Minister twice. He was appointed Russia's representative to the E.U. in March 2003 and was based in Brussels. Analysts believe that Fradkov belongs neither to the Siloviki, the hardline ex-KGB group from St. Petersburg, which is reportedly close to Putin; nor to the group of moderate-technocrats who ring Putin; nor to the pro-Yeltsin, pro-oligarchic faction that is currently out of favour.
Analysts are divided in their assessment of Fradkov, the majority of them feel that he is bureaucratic and will follow Putin's orders with diligence and without questioning any policy decisions. Others feel that the very fact that Fradkov is an "unknown quantity" and a figure "not aligned to any faction" is in itself a positive fact. They feel that his economic background makes him more acceptable. "He is a civil servant who represented Russia in the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. He should be an acceptable figure for Western investors. He is a man who will stand up for Russia's economic interests and at the same time will be seen by the West as a moderate liberal," explained analyst Max Shein of BCS Financial Service.
KASYANOV'S successor has attracted a great deal of interest among all sections, as analysts feel that Putin's choice would indicate the direction in which the reforms would move. The fact that Fradkov is not close to any known factions has been received well by the intelligentsia. Further, his economics background indicates that Putin clearly plans to carry forward his agenda of economic reforms and his bureaucratic background indicates that he would be an experienced handler of bureaucratic affairs and an asset for Putin in his much-publicised scheme for a bureaucratic and systemic overhaul. On the surface it also seems that Fradkov will be at Putin's mercy. At least initially, divorced as he is from any factional network through and through, in order to survive he has to be Putin's man.
So, before Putin goes to the polls he faces an interesting situation. Perhaps he can rest on his laurels; there is a Duma which is dominated by pro-Kremlin parties and from which he does not expect any serious opposition to any reformist legislation he puts forth in his second term, and he has a relatively `insignificant' Prime Minister who has to be tested in the realm of realpolitik.
Simultaneously, Putin has also succeeded in infusing fresh energy into a rather lacklustre election campaign. The public was losing interest steadily in the election as most presidential candidates signalled that they wanted to withdraw from the election. Putin's victory looked like a foregone conclusion; but the only problem that faced Kremlin strategists was of the fear of a low voter turnout. If the turnout fell below 50 per cent, it would not lend Putin's second term as President the credibility it needs. Analysts are of the opinion that Putin's latest move has rekindled interest in the election and given it a new direction.
Nikolai Petrov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told the press in Moscow that "the timing of Kasyanov's dismissal effectively makes the election a referendum on Putin's new team. Votes for Putin will be seen as a vote of confidence in his Cabinet." By introducing government formation into the debate, Putin has succeeded in drumming up public interest in the election. Putin himself clearly states that this decision has been influenced by his wish to "once again set out my stance on the issue of what the course for the country's development will be after March 14, 2004. I think Russia's citizens have the right to and should know the proposals for the composition of the supreme executive body of the state if I am elected President of Russia." Support for Putin is running high right now and analysts expect the voter turnout to be more than satisfactory now.
Russia seems ready and in position for President Putin's second term. The last vestiges of pro-Boris Yeltsin and pro-oligarchic elements have apparently been removed from the administration, with Putin evicting Kasyanov. Analysts are unanimous that the real target of this move was Kasyanov and the powerful "Family" faction supported by the former President. Igor Bunin of the Centre for Political Technologies told Reuters that "it is a symbolic move. Putin stood up and effectively said: I want to make it clear that all ties with Boris Yeltsin's family and its `son', Kasyanov, have now been severed." This reshuffle really signals the falling out of favour of the "Family" and the gaining of the upper hand by the "Siloviki" or ex-KGB faction. It means that the "Family" has lost an important round in a factional battle that has been going on within the Kremlin. Strategists had expected Kasyanov's removal from office for quite some time; Putin and Kasyanov have differed on policy matters for long. The real falling out seemed to have happened on the Yukos issue, when the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and Kasyanov spoke out in protest.
Putin is widely expected to come into his own and be one of the most powerful Presidents that Russia has known in a long time, when he wins his second term. What remains to be seen is the direction that his much-publicised "radical reform" will take. Will it be towards democracy, in the shape of economic and structural reforms? Or will it be towards the strengthening of the centre, authoritarianism, and state control over the economy and the administration?