Putin Announces New Mini-Cabinet

APPutin starting a Cabinet meeting on Thursday. From left bottom to top are his deputy prime ministers Alexander Zhukov, Alexei Kudrin and Igor Shuvalov.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday announced the creation of a new executive body that he said would inject efficiency into the unwieldy government machine.

The new body, called the presidium, will comprise Putin's seven deputies and seven other ministers and meet once a week, in a routine reminiscent of Putin's weekly Monday meetings with key ministers in the Kremlin. The entire Cabinet will convene at least once a month, Putin said.

"It is obvious that government meetings are a rather unwieldy mechanism and pretty bureaucratized," Putin told the ministers at his first regular Cabinet meeting since being confirmed as prime minister last week.

The weekly meetings will help increase "the efficiency of our work and the discussion of the current issues," Putin said.

Three of the seven ministers named to the presidium report directly to President Dmitry Medvedev, not Putin, a development likely to feed into a widespread belief that Putin wants to stay in control of the country, at least for now.

The three ministers are Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. The other ministers are Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak, Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova, Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev and Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters after the meeting.

Excluded from the presidium are officials such as the energy minister, industry and trade minister and natural resources and environment minister. These ministers will be invited to attend presidium meetings when need be, Putin said.

"I have the feeling that he still hasn't fallen out of the habit of being a president," said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with Indem, a think tank.

Under the structure that Putin is putting together, the chain of command is unclear, and that will play to his benefit if things go awry, Korgunyuk said. "It's hard to see who's responsible for what," he said.

Peskov said the new structure was not an attempt to endow Putin with power that went beyond his authority but represented "universal elements of management."

"It's impossible to transfer the Kremlin to the White House," he said.

The presidium represents three-fifths of the Cabinet and essentially provides the quorum necessary for the government to conduct its business and make decisions, Peskov said. "We are not talking about the substitution of ministers' activities but about the coordination of the activities," he said.

Some critics scoffed at the choice of the word "presidium," which is highly reminiscent of Soviet traditions. In the Soviet Union, a small group known as the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet made all decisions, albeit under the influence of the Communist Party Politburo.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov criticized Putin's Cabinet as a step back in history. "This reminds me of nostalgia for Soviet times," Kasyanov, fired by Putin in 2004, said at a conference in Brussels, Interfax reported.

Whether the Kremlin or the White House will become the country's primary center of power remains anybody's guess for now. State officials are taking sides and pledging allegiances, while the country's biggest newspapers might be providing clues with the way they cover Putin and Medvedev. Kommersant on Thursday led its front page with a story about Putin's visit to a new oil export terminal, while burying a story on Medvedev's meeting about small businesses on Page 2. Izvestia put the story about Medvedev on its front page.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met Medvedev on Wednesday, tried to arrange a meeting with Putin but was rebuffed, German reporters traveling with Steinmeier said. Peskov denied the reports.

Speaking at the Cabinet meeting, which focused on Russia's short and mid-term development, Putin said the country must focus on innovation and criticized the Economic Development Ministry for what he described as a "very strange" forecast for its growth.

"We are talking about an innovative path of development, but if you look at the ministry's forecast, it doesn't really smell like there is any innovative development there," Putin said curtly. "Has anybody seen the investment forecast?"

The share of "innovative goods" to be produced and exported is forecast to grow at a "completely insignificant" pace, Putin said.

The economy will expand by about 6.5 percent per year from next year to 2011, and investments will grow by 13 percent per year, he added.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Nabiullina said she would take Putin's criticism into consideration but that additional measures were needed to boost innovations. She agreed that the forecast growth rate of less than 1 percentage point was meager but said the current figures were the result of earlier decisions.

In a separate development, Deputy Economic Development Minister Kirill Androsov will be appointed a deputy government chief of staff, Peskov said.