Putin Offers His Support to Fradkov

President Vladimir Putin threw a lifeline to his embattled prime minister on Monday, praising Mikhail Fradkov's government for sticking to the course he had laid out.

At a meeting with Cabinet ministers, Putin dropped his usual role of tough taskmaster to tell Fradkov he was impressed by the Cabinet's commitment to fulfill tasks he had set earlier in the year in his state of the nation address.

"I note with satisfaction that the government has taken up the basic provisions and targets set out in the presidential address," he said in televised comments.

"Some of them have been already implemented at the legislative level."

Putin's praise came at a time when Fradkov, locked in conflict with liberal ministers over whether Kremlin plans are realistic, faces growing public criticism over his government's performance.

In his address, Putin tasked the Cabinet with speeding up economic growth, slowing despite a windfall of oil revenues, and boosting investor confidence hit by the Kremlin-orchestrated onslaught against oil major Yukos.

On Monday, Putin praised his Cabinet specifically for pushing through a bill that restricted to three years the time limitation on privatization deals being overruled and bills that scrapped gift tax and death duties for close relatives.

Putin also said the government would soon come out with a new package of bills improving tax administration -- part of his order to end arbitrary actions by tax authorities, which scare the business community.

Rumors of Fradkov's possible resignation have surfaced regularly since the government's botched attempt to modernize Soviet-era social security benefits ended in confusion, hitting Putin's popularity.

Last week, United Russia State Duma deputies blasted the Cabinet for failing to coordinate with it a bill raising budget spending this year by 11 percent. The Duma rubber-stamped the bill, however.

Fradkov's situation is further soured by a growing gulf between him and a liberal wing in the government, led by Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

Last Thursday, Gref was in an open dispute with Fradkov, who insisted on pressing ahead with the task set by Putin of doubling gross domestic product by 2010.

Fradkov and the liberals are also at odds over other issues, including the pace of state involvement in the economy and the use of the stabilization fund, accumulated from high oil revenues, which liberals want to use solely for paying external debts to avoid fueling inflation.

At Thursday's government meeting, Fradkov criticized Gref over the latter's plans to slash the number of government-funded investment programs.