The new government and its implications

The new government, finalized last week, has turned out to be not very new at all: President Vladimir Putin replaced only three ministers. But the list of potential presidential candidates has now expanded to include Viktor Zubkov, Alexei Kudrin, and Dmitri Kozak.

The new government, finalized last week, has turned out to be not very new at all: President Vladimir Putin replaced only three ministers. But Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, as soon as he took office, managed to demonstrate the Soviet style of leadership that Russian citizens still remember; and it is this style that makes him a realistic contender for the role of presidential successor.

On the one hand, we can see that Putin has reconfirmed his adherence to the following formula: “I replace people when I choose to do so, not when it’s demanded of me.” After all, the dismissals of the most unpopular ministers – Mikhail Zurabov, Herman Gref, Vladimir Yakovlev – were not a result of external demands (whether from the “ruling party” or the opposition); they were part of a “planned replacement of the Cabinet as a whole.”

On the other hand, Putin also revealed his attitude to the anti-nepotism drive launched by Prime Minister Zubkov, who advised his son-in-law, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, to submit his resignation. Putin not only refused to accept this resignation, but went on to appoint Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko’s wife, Tatiana Golikova, as the new minister for health and social development: thus legitimizing family alliances in the government.

We can hardly expect any noticeable changes in the economic strategy of the “semi-new” government. It is more likely to leave the existing policy course unaltered. After all, Elvira Nabiullina was always regarded as Herman Gref’s right-hand womn, while Tatiana Golikova was a co-author of Mikhail Zurabov’s reforms. And Dmitri Kozak, even restricted to the Southern federal district framework, clearly tried to step out beyond the borders assigned to him; for example, he developed a set of performance assessment criteria for regional leaders in the Southern federal district, and these criteria may now be useful at the federal level.

But Kozak’s prospects in his new role could prove to be even more thrilling. Kozak has gone through four horizontal shifts in the past seven years: Cabinet chief-of-staff, deputy head of the presidential administration, Cabinet chief-of-staff with deputy prime minister status, presidential envoy for the Southern federal district, and minister for regional development. Throughout this time, he has always been regarded as one of Putin’s closest allies. His new office could be a spring-board for a long-awaited promotion upward in the hierarchy. For example, this would be an option if Putin is unable to find an entirely worthy successor in the next six months, and decides to entrust Russia to a temporary president – with Kozak as a strong prime minister guaranteeing that the policy course will remain unchanged. Moreover, some political analysts believe that Kozak himself is fully capable of aspiring to the presidency.

Zubkov’s first days as prime minister show that he seems to seriously regard himself as a worthy presidential successor, capable of competing in the presidential election of 2008. The national television networks, sensitive to hints from the top, certainly see Zubkov that way: they have readily provided coverage of Zubkov in all sorts of situations.

Judging by this television coverage, the main features of Zubkov’s pre-presidential image should be toughness or even brutality toward his subordinates, along with a mild approach to innocent ordinary citizens.

Zubkov demonstrated the former aspect as he chaired his first Cabinet meeting on September 20. Using some fairly harsh language, he sent Anton Drozdov (head of the Cabinet staff’s economics and finance department) to Sakhalin Island, to supervise the allocation of federal funding for disaster relief in the earthquake-affected town of Nevelsk. “And let him stay there until the money is delivered and people receive the relief aid from the reserve fund,” said Zubkov sternly to Sergei Naryshkin, deputy prime minister and Cabinet chief-of-staff.

Early last week, at a meeting to discuss preparations for the coming winter, Zubkov looked even more resolute. He instructed Yegor Borisov, prime minister of Yakutia, to “fly over here tomorrow with all the materials” in order to “sort out the money within three days.” Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin (often mentioned as a potential candidate for a federal Cabinet appointment) was advised by Zubkov to “sort out why he is being given one set of figures, flattering figures, while we are given the real figures.”

Thus, the latest Cabinet changes have failed to clarify the presidential successor situation. In fact, they have made it even more confusing. On the one hand, the two politicians regarded as favorites until now – senior deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev – have not been promoted or demoted at all, contrary to many predictions in the media. Prior to Zubkov’s appointment, there were persistent predictions that Ivanov would become prime minister; and Medvedev’s dismissal from the government was predicted. On the other hand, the list of potential presidential candidates has now expanded to include Viktor Zubkov, Alexei Kudrin (as deputy prime minister and St. Petersburg native), and Dmitri Kozak (a close ally of Putin, with proven ability to tackle the toughest assignments).

And it remains entirely uncertain when Putin will finally decide to select one of these people (or someone else, as yet unknown to the public). Yet he seems to have only two options. He can either name his favorite while candidates are being nominated (in the second half of December or the first half of January), or delay announcing his choice until the last moment before voting begins – when all the potential successors have become presidential candidates. Then again, the latter option carries the risk of leaving things too late: even with heroic propaganda efforts from the national television networks, there might not be enough time for voters to understand whom their beloved president wishes to see as the next head of state.