The Izvestia newspaper quotes President Vladimir Putin, at a meeting with United Russia leaders, describing Mikhail Fradkov as follows: “Undoubtedly, he is a highly skilled professional, a man of integrity, with good experience in various areas of state activity.”

And straight away, before the United Russia leaders had time to recover themselves in the wake of this unexpected decision, the president added – for the benefit of the TV cameras, according to the papers – the following words: “I am very glad that our opinions have coincided.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this point made by the president (being glad that his opinion about the candidate for prime minister coincided with the views of United Russia leaders) “is hard to interpret as anything other than polite mockery.”

What’s more, according to the sources of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the consultations with the Duma majority in the lead-up to Fradkov’s appointment were conducted not by the president himself, but by Vyacheslav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. Nezavisimaya Gazeta says these consultations were more like a “group therapy session” than a business meeting: the party functionaries were persuaded not to take offense, and promised that their wishes would be taken into account when other Cabinet ministers are appointed.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta observes: “Fradkov occupies a unique niche in Russia’s contemporary political beau monde: both the government economists and the security and law enforcement people can consider him one of their own, in part.”

According to the sources of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, despite his lack of a St. Petersburg background, Fradkov has fairly close ties to the security and law enforcement people. And he is “a kind of compromise figure for Yeltsin’s Family and the people from St. Petersburg.” At any rate, Fradkov is considered neither a liberal nor a conservative, let alone a “hawk.”

On the contrary, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta emphasises, this “experienced public servant” is known for being reasonable and prepared to compromise.

Izvestia goes on to say that at a meeting with Cabinet ministers, the president reiterated his description of Fradkov in a more businesslike form: “He’s a good strong administrator, and a decent person.”

The press paints a curious picture in describing the reactions to the president’s decision of those whose names have been mentioned in the media over the past week as potential choices for prime minister.

Profil magazine described United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov as “an ideal successor to Putin, in the capacity of the Queen of England, who reigns but does not rule.” Izvestia says that Gryzlov was clearly forced to make an effort of will when he walked out of Putin’s office to face the media. “It was visible. And he knew everyone could see it.”

All the same, Gryzlov said the proper things about Fradkov: “Mikhail Fradkov has all the required capacities to head the government which will carry out strategic reforms in our country.” And he added: “I know him to be a fair person, and a real fighter against corruption.” At that point, the Izvestia article notes that Gryzlov “sighed sadly, for some reason.”

At one time in the past, Izvestia recalls, when he was the interior minister, Gryzlov had striven to get the Federal Tax Police Service (FTPS) disbanded, “as an allegedly corrupt and unreformable agency.” Mikhail Fradkov headed the FTPS at the time.

Izvestia notes cautiously: “Perhaps he had not yet had time to deal with the legacy of his predecessor.”

Izvestia goes on to say that another person named in the media as a likely candidate for prime minister, Duma Deputy Speaker Alexander Zhukov, “gazed at the television cameras with big, honest eyes” and assured the public that Fradkov is a “fortunate choice.”

At his meeting with “members of the dismissed government, as well as security and law enforcement people who have not been dismissed,” President Putin noted that Fradkov used to be a deputy secretary of the Security Council – that is, he “understands the security bloc.” Then media attention turned to another bypassed candidate for prime minister: Sergei Ivanov. Fradkov was his deputy when Ivanov headed the Security Council.

Izvestia notes: “The minister’s face showed no delight that the almost-appointed prime minister was one of his former subordinates. Ivanov sat with his hands locked around each other, staring at the papers in front of him.”

According to the sources of the Russkii Kurier newspaper, Sergei Ivanov may have been the one who drew Putin’s attention to Fradkov as a possible choice for prime minister.

Actually, there is also another version of events: the idea came from Yevgeny Primakov. The Novye Izvestia newspaper says: “It was Yevgeny Primakov who realized that Mikhail Fradkov is an extremely cautious person. He likes to stay in the background, and never indulges in ‘games of his own.'”

At any rate, as Russkii Kurier notes, it doesn’t really matter whether Ivanov or Primakov recommended Fradkov; “what matters is that both are authoritative.”

The Vedomosti newspaper says: “Just as sources in the presidential administration had hinted, Vladimir Putin has made an unusual choice of prime minister.”

The president even had to explain to his United Russia supporters why Mikhail Fradkov, currently Russia’s representative to the European Union, is capable of heading the government.

Vedomosti notes that to be fair, we should admit it was easy for Putin to convince them.

During the second round of consultations with United Russia leaders, these members of parliament no longer ventured to name their own suggestions for prime minister, “bearing in mind their unsuccessful attempt to nominate United Russia faction leader Boris Gryzlov.” And it was precisely then that Mikhail Fradkov’s name was mentioned. One participant in the consultations shared his impressions with Vedomosti: “There was a silence, since some of us couldn’t even remember who Fradkov was.”

Then again, Izvestia adds, “some Kremlin sources” claim Fradkov isn’t such a bad option – at least “he is neither from St. Petersburg nor a former KGB officer.” There is some hope that the new prime minister “will develop some hitherto dormant capacities, and grow to fill the role of the second most senior state official, the president’s second in command.”

Vedomosti quotes some opinions – including that of Mikhail Zadornov, current Duma member and former finance minister, who considers Fradkov’s nomination a kind of compromise between the security and law enforcement people and the liberals: “He has no distinct political face, no obvious ties to political clans or business clans – thus, he will look only to Putin.”

And the Russkii Kurier newspaper says the president was guided entirely by pragmatism: “The head of state wasn’t seeking a prime minister whose face is often seen on television, nor a political hanger-on, nor a business executive, nor a new-wave technocrat. He was looking for someone within the system, with tried and tested correct instincts about the state and subordination.”

What’s more, as the Novye Izvestia newspaper notes, from the standpoint of “the significance which the figure of the new prime minister is supposed to possess,” all is now well. After all, Fradkov used to head the FTPS. “Thus, Putin can now tell voters that he is not going into the election with a prime minister who publicly expresses support for YUKOS, but with a person who spent two years forcing oligarchs to pay their taxes. He can avoid mentioning that Fradkov essentially presided over the shutdown of the FTPS.”

Basically, there is no shortage of interpretations of Putin’s decision, as usual. Leading economist Yevgeny Yasin has expressed the opinion that the president deliberately chose someone obscure. Yasin told Vedomosti: “This is undoubtedly a technical prime minister. He will not aspire to the role of successor or create any complications for those among the elite who are aiming to take Putin’s place in 2008.”

According to the sources of Vedomosti, United Russia leaders are sure that Fradkov will remain prime minister after Putin’s inauguration. A senior source in United Russia said: “A technical prime minister is an essential component for carrying out liberal reforms, just as necessary as a mono-party (United Russia), a technical parliament, and a strong president.”

Sources in the Yabloko party assured Vedomosti that Fradkov is here to stay. According to Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin, Fradkov will probably remain the prime minister until the next presidential election – more precisely, until he is replaced by Putin’s designated successor.

The topic of the successor is continued in Russkii Kurier.

The press has already labelled Fradkov “the Terminator prime minister.” Between 1997 and 2002, his career movements on several occasions were accompanied by the closure of whichever agency he was leaving – the last of these being the FTPS. In fact, he is no more than a “decorative prime minister.”

Despite his extensive background in state administration, Russkii Kurier considers that Fradkov is unlikely to feel confident in the role of prime minister.

However, rumor has it that he has some reliable insurance. According to the sources of Russkii Kurier, ever since 2000, when Fradkov became Sergei Ivanov’s senior deputy at the Security Council, Fradkov has been “under Ivanov’s wing” – and Ivanov is the president’s personal friend.

Russkii Kurier reports: “It is said that Fradkov and Ivanov’s friendship developed on the basis of Fradkov’s extensive contacts in the defense sector, the sector which Ivanov, as defense minister, subsequently worked to bring under his own control.”

In return for his cooperation, Fradkov was guaranteed patronage at the top, and protection – especially during his time at the FTPS.

Without naming its sources, Russkii Kurier reports information to the effect that “the tax police generals” in those days “were overly involved in commerce, and turned the FTPS into a business.” If these rumors are to be believed, it’s easy to imagine that “while friendship is friendship, Mikhail Fradkov’s patrons also have some reliable means of putting pressure on him.”

In any event, Sergei Ivanov’s client doesn’t seem like a figure of substance in politics as yet. Thus, some are assuming that the central figure in the new Cabinet will be Ivanov himself – promoted from defense minister to “the post of deputy prime minister, with the ability to take charge not only of the security bloc, but some of the economic bloc’s issues as well.”

According to the sources of Russkii Kurier, this is precisely how “March 2004 will see the full-scale launch of the Successor 2008 project.”

Fradkov will play the role of prime minister right up to 2007, while all the real leverage will pass into Sergei Ivanov’s hands. Then, during the next change of government, the present head of the Defense Ministry will emerge from the shadows completely – “in order to become the next favorite in the presidential race of 2008.”

Meanwhile, leading political scientist Olga Kryshtanovskaya confirmed to the Kommersant newspaper that Fradkov and Ivanov are both members of “Putin’s Politburo.” Fradkov has no charisma, Kryshtanovskaya notes; he is very reserved and unobtrusive, and he is unlikely to become Putin’s successor. However, Kryshtanovskaya says “some believe that Putin might become the prime minister in 2008, while making Fradkov the decorative president.”

Meanwhile, party leaders are sure there has been no political component in the appointment of Mikhail Fradkov.

Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Ivanenko told Gazeta: “Although it doesn’t give much away, this decision is still fairly revealing: the president will not permit the state’s second-highest post to be filled by any political figure with even a limited degree of independence. The president has made it clear that even more than in the past, he will control the government directly and determine the course the nation will take.”

Sergei Glaziev, leader of the Motherland (Rodina) faction in the Duma and presidential candidate, spoke along similar lines in a Vremya Novostei interview: “This appointment is evidence that Putin is continuing his personnel policy of appointing people who will not make independent decisions. The people Putin has placed in all key posts are people who won’t make a move without his consent.”

Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitri Rogozin, Glaziev’s colleague and rival in the Motherland bloc, agreed with Glaziev for once. “Putin doesn’t want politicians in the government – he wants highly qualified people who do as they are told,” said Rogozin in an interview with Izvestia. In Rogozin’s view, Fradkov will behave “like a strong dispatcher expressing the president’s will.”

According to Rogozin, “there won’t be any parliamentary majority government.” In general, Rogozin doubts whether Fradkov will be free to choose personnel for the new Cabinet: most likely, all the key appointments have already been arranged.

The greatest disapproval of Fradkov has come from Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

In an interview with Vremya Novostei, Zhirinovsky was highly critical: “We base our views on the fact that this person is currently abroad, and his entire career has been connected with foreign trade. In the Soviet era, I was closely connected with that field. Most of the people in it were crooks. And now the situation there is even worse.”

There’s also an element of personal grievances in Zhirinovsky’s assessment: “I personally approached Mikhail Fradkov around eight years ago, proposing a good plan to develop foreign trade in the Pacific region. But he rejected all my plans.” Zhirinovsky’s assessment of Fradkov’s achievements in state administration is rather harsh as well: “Then he headed the FTPS, which was corrupt and ineffective. And then he was at the Security Council – which is a swamp. Then he went abroad. He doesn’t understand the situation in Russia. All the agencies in which he has worked have done damage to the national economy.”

Gennadi Zyuganov told Izvestia that “the people are unfamiliar with Fradkov, they don’t know him.” Moreover, Fradkov’s specialty is trade. Zyuganov emphasized: “Given that over a decade of the so-called reform agenda everything has already been sold off, we have an objective need for people capable of creating something, working, developing new industries.” Therefore, “many had hoped” the president would appoint that kind of person.

What’s more, according to Zyuganov, there is the impression that Fradkov’s appointment acts to strengthen “yet another financial group close to the Kremlin – the Alfa Group,” which has distinguished itself over the past decade by “buying and selling things rather cleverly.”

Zyuganov noted that Putin may be forced to take the Alfa Group into account these days: “It raises the alarming prospect of a new ‘collective Berezovsky’ appearing in the Kremlin.”

It is hard to say what the grounds for such concerns may be. Thus far, politicians and political analysts, both in Russia and the West, have been most surprised by the fact that Fradkov’s name wasn’t mentioned in any list of Mikhail Kasianov’s most likely successors.

The New York Times said: “President Vladimir V. Putin surprised Russia today by naming a low-profile bureaucrat as prime minister, who in practice follows the lead of the president.” (Quoted in Kommersant.)

The Times found the most surprising aspect of the appointment to be the fact that Fradkov was “a minister under Boris Yeltsin”: “Most observers suggested that when Mr. Putin dismissed Mikhail Kasianov, his prime minister, last week, he did so to draw a line under the Yeltsin era.” (Also quoted in Kommersant.)

As for a conclusive parting of ways with the Yeltsin era – that’s true, in a certain sense, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

On the one hand, Mikhail Fradkov is an experienced economist, like Mikhail Kasianov. However, while Kasianov was a new-formation economist, conversant with “intricate market mechanisms,” Fradkov is “a representative of a different school, the Soviet school, with its attachment to state regulation and command economy methods.”

In this system of coordinates, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Fradkov is more akin to Viktor Chernomyrdin than to Kasianov.

Then again, as the Vedomosti newspaper says, it’s much easier to work out what Fradkov is not than what he actually is.

Vedomosti makes a list: “He is not an independent politician, he doesn’t have his own agenda, he’s not old, he’s not young, he’s not tall. He doesn’t appear to belong to any of the factions fighting for influence over the president.” He is neither from St. Petersburg nor from Moscow; he is neither a liberal nor one of the security and law enforcement people. And Fradkov is unlikely to scare the foreigners – he has a great deal of experience in international negotiations.

Thus, the president’s “message” is quite easy to read, as Vedomosti emphasizes: “He has taken on even more responsibility – he will make all the decisions himself.” The prime minister only needs to have the experience to achieve the objectives set for him, “but the political prime minister – that is, the person who sets the objectives – will be Vladimir Putin himself.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, told Kommersant: “Putin has understood that the best person for the role of prime minister is himself.” Therefore, he will be the real prime minister.

As for Fradkov, Russkii Kurier says he has an underlying political function, as all the Kremlin’s recent actions have had: his appointment is meant to help ensure that the March 14 election is valid – by bringing some extra people out to vote. Citing the opinion of “the Moscow political ratings market,” Russkii Kurier claims that “even the visual appearance of Fradkov is exactly what Putin needs.”

In any event, as leading political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Russkii Kurier, “it is now clear that the government dismissal was prompted by the fear that the election might not be valid.”

Indeed, according to most observers, the idea that the March 14 vote might be invalidated due to low voter turnout is a constant nightmare for the Kremlin.

Moskovskie Novosti editor-in-chief Yevgeny Kiselev says it’s a matter of simple arithmetic: “If turnout is low, even a win with 70% of the vote would leave Putin as the president elected by a minority of Russian citizens, with all the consequences this entails for his mandate.”

Moreover, what if some of the other candidates pull out of the race at the last moment? There has been constant talk of this possibility lately; and that would create real problems with voter turnout and legitimacy.

But now, after the saga of the government dismissal and the appointment of an obscure bureaucrat as prime minister, “interest in politics is starting to simmer again,” says Yevgeny Kiselev.

Kiselev goes on to say: “Many people will now turn out to vote solely for the purpose of expressing their dissatisfaction, to cock a snook at the Kremlin – by voting against all candidates, for example. They don’t realize that in the final analysis, their votes will still be votes for Putin.”

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal analyst Alexander Ryklin categorically disagrees with Kiselev.

Ryklin does not dispute that the government dismissal announcement has stirred up “the previously-bored public” to some extent. However, he says the suspense is essentially over now that the new prime minister’s name is known: “Before this, we could spend our time guessing who would replace Kasianov after the presidential election, and that stimulated interest in the election somewhat – but now even that question is no longer on the agenda.”

Thus, Putin’s sudden decision is hardly likely to boost voter turnout. And in any case, says Ryklin, worrying about turnout “isn’t the czar’s problem.” There are “specially trained people” available to take care of such matters.

Ryklin says that the Kremlin’s abrupt actions so soon before election day only indicate one thing: Vladimir Putin “has simply tired of playing this essentially humiliating game called Presidential Elections in the Russian Federation.”

And indeed, says Ryklin, why should such a universally-beloved head of state (the VTsIOM-A polling agency gives Putin an 80% support rating, and the ROMIR Monitoring agency places it at 77%, according to Vremya Novostei) have to comply with some silly rules? After all, the question has basically been decided already.

Therefore, says Ryklin, by dismissing the government, Putin was essentially telling his voters: You know who your president will be. Everyone knows it. So it makes sense to wind up the formalities: Here’s a new prime minister for you, and let’s forget about this.

Thus, Putin has essentially cancelled the presidential election campaign, says Ryklin. More precisely, he has conducted it at an accelerated rate: “Most people simply haven’t noticed it.”

However, there is no doubt that all the necessary formalities – voting, the inauguration, taking the oath of office, and walking past the assembled ranks of retainers old and new – all these will be observed. We don’t have long to wait.

As someone from the United Russia party’s leadership told the Vedomosti newspaper, a country that aspires to be called civilized “must have some attributes of democracy.” They are mandatory – no matter how pointless they may appear.