THE MAGNIFICENT EIGHT

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A few predictions about impending Cabinet changes

Everyone is guessing about the government’s new composition. And everyone is aware that no reasonably accurate forecasts are possible. Leaving aside Putin’s well-known preference for secrecy and surprises, there are too many people involved in designing the future look of the executive branch.


Government House has recorded the first casualties of the government’s impending restructuring. According to our sources, all senior Cabinet staff officials except the chief-of-staff have been instructed to move to smaller offices. Everyone is guessing about the government’s new composition. And everyone is aware that no reasonably accurate forecasts are possible. Leaving aside Vladimir Putin’s well-known preference for secrecy and surprises, there are too many people involved in designing the future look of the executive branch. First of all, of course, there is Putin himself. But there is also Alexander Voloshin, former head of the presidential administration, now working on momentous administrative plans in an office across the street from the Balchug Hotel. Across the Moskva River, the same is being done by presidential aide Igor Shuvalov, a former Cabinet chief-of-staff. And over in St. Petersburg, some sort of plans are being compiled by Nikolai Kropachev – acting rector of the St. Petersburg University, close friend of Medvedev, and possessor of some fairly substantial ambitions. And these are only the designers whom observers have managed to identify. In reality, a great many more people may be involved.

Everything could be changed at the last moment – as we recall from the last government reshuffle, in September 2007. According to two informed sources, last year’s preparations included a “final” decision to merge the Economic Development Ministry with the Finance Ministry into one Ministry of Finance and Economic Forecasting. But our country’s masters never did manage to agree on a candidate to head this mega-ministry; so the plan was abandoned, and the two ministries continued to exist separately.

Given this context, we can only talk of generalities and indisputable facts. For example, most of our sources agree that Putin’s new Cabinet will feature an exceptionally impressive number of deputy prime ministers. Some say there may be eight, or even nine. Government House has seen nothing like this for almost 12 years – since the Chernomyrdin government as it was in summer of 2006.

As for potential members of this “fighting eight,” the most obvious candidate is the current prime minister, Viktor Zubkov. Cabinet staff sources say that their boss is issuing directives that can’t possibly be implemented before May. Moreover, Zubkov is an unofficial candidate for chairman of the board at Gazprom; and this office is usually combined with the office of deputy prime minister.

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin is a focus of suspense, as usual. He is certainly an economic star in the Cabinet, with enough authority to make the prime minister himself back down on occasion. For example, Zubkov recently decided to host a meeting about the fate of the former Stabilization Fund. But Kudrin said: no meetings necessary until I have discussed the matter with Putin. And the prime minister canceled the meeting.

However, Kudrin’s opponents from the siloviki (security and law enforcement) faction have long been striving to get him out of the Finance Ministry. Last autumn, they tried to give him a formal promotion to “just” a deputy prime minister. That trick didn’t work. The siloviki had to be content with a consolation prize in the form of arresting Kudrin’s deputy, Sergei Storchak. Now they have a chance to strike back.

At this stage, it probably doesn’t make sense to discuss other possibilities for deputy prime minister appointments. There are too many theories: from the reasonably logical to the completely bizarre (like the rumor that Putin has offered Grigori Yavlinsky the job of deputy prime minister for social policy).

The greatest source of danger is that a deep split persists among the siloviki. The Sechin clan and the Cherkesov clan are firmly intent on weakening (if not destroying) each other.

Rank-and-file participants in Russia’s political process have always stood a strong chance of suddenly becoming scapegoats in somebody else’s big game. Think of Storchak, or General Bulbov (also arrested as a publicity move in a faction power-struggle). One source told us that the same applies to Natalia Morar, the young Moldovan journalist recently deported from Russia. And in the still-incomprehensible “Putvedev era,” the likelihood of being caught in the crossfire when the big boys duel can only increase.

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