Will Dmitri Medvedev replace Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister?

Speaking anonymously, our sources among the Duma leadership report that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and several other minister may be dismissed in October. Analysts name First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as the most likely replacement for Fradkov.

Speaking anonymously, our sources among the Duma leadership report that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and several other minister may be dismissed in October. Analysts name First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as the most likely replacement for Fradkov. According to analysts, if this potential presidential candidate is appointed as prime minister, it will be a sure sign that the next phase of Operation Successor has begun.

On the other hand, some of our sources maintain that the dismissal of the prime minister and several ministers could be the consequence of a Cabinet restructuring linked to changes in economic policy.

It became clear in June that preparations are under way for some substantial changes in the government, initiated by Mikhail Fradkov himself. Following the state administration reforms of 2004, all of the government’s economic bloc functions were concentrated in three ministries: the Finance Ministry, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, and the Industry and Energy Ministry. The main reason for further Cabinet reforms will be demarcation of these three ministries’ powers. And the prime minister might acquire two more deputies, one of whom would focus on making the government’s economic bloc more effective.

Fradkov has already spoken out publicly in favor of depriving the Economic Development Ministry of control over the foreign trade bloc. According to Fradkov, these functions should be taken away from the Economic Development Ministry because it isn’t coping with all the tasks assigned to it. After the reorganization, control over foreign trade may be passed to the Industry and Energy Ministry. Moreover, RosEnergo might become a department of the Industry and Energy Ministry; and Viktor Khristenko would retain the post of minister for industry and energy. A presidential decree issued in May withdrew the Federal Customs Service from the Economic Development Ministry’s control. True, sources said at the time that the Federal Customs Service was not being transferred because of any poor performance by the Economic Development Ministry. But this was followed by resignation rumors regarding Economic Development Minister Herman Gref. According to unofficial reports, Gref informed President Putin in early summer that he wished to resign; but his resignation was not accepted, due to the upcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Then again, if Fradkov is dismissed, Gref might still retain a place in the Cabinet.

The other ministers being mentioned as candidates for dismissal are Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev. Gennadi Onishchenko, head of the Russian Consumer Protection Inspectorate (RosPotrebNadzor), might also lose his job; he has compromised himself by getting involved in recent political scandals.

Meanwhile, the possibility that Fradkov and some of his ministers may be dismissed is being eagerly discussed in the lobbies of the Duma; after all, Duma members might be able to fill some of the vacancies – especially given that United Russia has been promoting the idea of party-affiliated minister. The Duma factor could be decisive in any decision to dismiss the Cabinet. Experts say that a replacement of the prime minister and other ministers, as well as signalling a change in economic policy, might also be linked to preparations for the parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in 2007-08. According to the Constitution, the prime minister’s appointment must be endorsed by the Duma. There won’t be any problems with that, given the Duma’s present composition. But the Duma election of 2007 – despite (and largely because of) the thorough purge of the party field – might produce some surprises. Because single-mandate districts have been abolished, United Russia might fail to win an absolute majority. And the alliance launched by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration – the Russian Party of Life, the Russian Party of Pensioners, and Motherland (Rodina) – has immediately clashed with United Russia over administrative resources. In the lead-up to the presidential election, the new prime minister must endorsed without any conflict.

Some experts link the impending Cabinet purge with the start of Operation Successor. If that is the case, the leading candidates for prime minister would be the potential successors: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, curator of the national projects – and Sergei Ivanov, deputy prime minister and defense minister.

Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov says: “One of the successor candidates is likely to be appointed as prime minister, to give him control of a huge budget so that he can hand out money, build hospitals and schools, and make every effort to show that he cares about the people.” However, Ryzhkov maintains that Fradkov would only be transferred, not dismissed, because “President Putin doesn’t really have any complaints about Fradkov’s performance, and he isn’t in the habit of dismissing senior officials without finding them new jobs as compensation.”

According to analysts, Dmitri Medvedev is still the most likely candidate. “He will probably take the place of prime minister,” says Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center. But Mukhin maintains that it would be inexpedient to appoint Medvedev as prime minister right now, since he “has only just mastered the role of nationally-oriented projects manager, and any further movement up his career ladder would lead to the kind of fuss that President Putin greatly dislikes.” Mukhin concludes: “Medvedev first needs to achieve some initial results, before he can be promoted any further.”

According to Mukhin, other potential prime ministers include Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, and the second successor candidate, Sergei Ivanov. Mukhin says: “Sergei Ivanov also has an ambition to become prime minister. But despite his political and social activity, Ivanov is not suited to the post of prime minister at present – because that would make him a target in the campaign of 2008.”

Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov also maintains that it’s still too soon to launch the tried and tested system whereby the successor is appointed as prime minister and subsequently becomes the Kremlin’s chief presidential candidate. “There’s still a long way to go before the election,” says Ryzhkov. “In terms of technique, it’s much better to make such changes a year or six months before the election, not 18 months.”

Then again, according to analysts, it’s quite likely that the post of prime minister could go to someone who isn’t a public figure, as in the case of Fradkov’s appointment. Sergei Markov, director of the Political Studies Institute: “Mikhail Fradkov’s appointment showed that Vladimir Putin regards his personnel reserve bench as infinite. So, in terms of what kind of person this might be – it could be any one of hundreds of people. It could be a manager, a technocrat, or an economic liberal with no political ambitions.”

Besides, the successor’s path to the presidency doesn’t have to be exactly the same as Putin’s own path was. “For some reason, everyone’s assuming that Putin thinks of his own path as the example to follow,” says Mukhin. “But that’s not necessarily true, since our prime ministers tend to be expendable figures – Fradkov’s the one who takes the blame for the government’s mistakes. He maneuvers expertly, of course, being an apparatchik, so it isn’t very obvious, but that is the case.”