Room to Maneuver

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At first glance, Mikhail Fradkov's replacement by Viktor Zubkov as prime minister looks like the same kind of personnel move President Vladimir Putin made in 2004, when Fradkov was brought in to replace Mikhail Kasyanov. Once again, we have the relatively unexpected resignation of the government and the appointment of a prime minister who is largely unknown in broader circles. Whereas Fradkov was a technocrat from the moment he was picked and right up to his last day in office, Zubkov is a political figure, even if not in the public eye before now.

Fradkov's elevation was the result of a lack of loyalty to the Kremlin on the part of Kasyanov. There was never any concern of opposition from Fradkov's corner, something that Putin underscored with the high honors and deep thanks accorded Fradkov on his departure.

While Putin was only mildly acquainted with Fradkov before his appointment in 2004, he worked with Zubkov not only while serving as first deputy to St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s, but also on Putin's committee for external relations. Nobody becomes the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service by accident in a system where it is clear that information is one of the most significant tools of power.

Zubkov's prospects in current power structures were already strong before he was named to the new post. His position looked strong both because his protege, Anatoly Serdyukov, had been named defense minister earlier this year, but just as important, because Mikhail Mokretsov, who has worked with Zubkov since his days in St. Petersburg City Hall, had stepped into the top spot vacated by Serdyukov at the Federal Tax Service. So Zubkov maintains his influence in the tax service.

Why did Putin appoint Zubkov now? It would appear that the competition within the halls of power over Putin's successor had become so acute that quick, firm action had to be taken at the beginning of the State Duma election campaign. The increased competition within the top group was beginning to raise questions about its stability -- a particularly unwelcome happening during a time that was supposed to be a test of the system's ability to handle elections without Putin.

A number of signs of that instability spilled out into public view. Not only were there indications of the battle to succeed the president, but also signs of jockeying for other positions. There was a struggle for the top job at the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, for example, in which Zubkov was twice pressured to opt for retirement by the Federation Council over the past year. There was also the strange set of events surrounding the announcement that the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya had been solved. One of the figures named as a suspect was a Federal Security Service officer, and his detention is now being debated in the courts. There was a strong feeling in the air that a serious personnel shake-up was on the way.

Zubkov's appearance as prime minister appears to be that shake-up. With this move, Putin remade the political situation, removing the successor question from the immediate agenda and pushing it off into the future.

The theme of a possible change in the government has also been taken off the agenda. Fradkov could be removed at any moment. Zubkov can't, if only because you can't go changing the government every month.

Now, major figures surrounding the president will be considering other issues along with that of the succession, including questions about their own futures in the government, the structure of the new Cabinet, and further personnel moves in general. (For example: Who will be named Security Council chief, as the slot has still not been filled after the departure of Igor Ivanov?)

There is the question of who wins and who loses in the higher reaches of power as a result of the surprise Putin has sprung. There is now a new element when it comes to the successor issue, in the form of the question "Who is Zubkov?" Is he another possible successor or the prime minister who has been chosen to serve under the successor -- meaning that Zubkov will stay in the post after 2008? Has he been chosen, instead, to guarantee economic stability throughout the election period?

The resignation of the government has again demonstrated that the ruling force of all Russian politics is Putin. Given the escalating personnel battles surrounding the successor question, Putin had two realistic options: He could make his ultimate choice of successor clear by appointing him prime minister (and thus immediately become a lame duck -- something he had to avoid), or he could recast the agenda. As always, Putin chose the option that allowed him to maintain the greatest possible room for maneuver.

Alexei Makarkin is the deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies. This comment appeared in Vedomosti.