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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshakov: Will He Push Own Agenda?

The new Russian government presented last week looked much like what the majority of observers had expected to see: the somewhat fewer ministries, the slightly revamped profile of the cabinet.

True, on the level of first deputies, there were changes. There are three new first deputies and not one of the "old" remained -- neither Vladimir Kadannikov nor Oleg Lobov.

Many expected the demoting of Lobov to just a "simple" deputy position; the removal of Kadannikov, though, was unexpected.

During the last days of the old government, everyone listed Kadannikov among the probable first deputies, not on economic policy but on operative management of the economy. It is traditional that the man who heads the commission on operative questions remains senior in the government during the absence of the prime minister.

In what way did Kadannikov displease Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin? There were no obvious conflicts, no obvious contradictions between Kadannikov and the top leadership. So what happened? Thus far there is only one version: Kadannikov was too indifferent a first deputy. As sources in the government have said, Kadannikov himself almost never interfered in anything, tried to refrain from making important decisions -- even in those instances when he had the authority to do so. It's possible that Chernomyrdin did not like a deputy who was trying to pass all responsibility onto his boss.

Perhaps the only real surprise in the new government is the appointment of chief first deputy Alexei Bolshakov, a man who heretofore has been involved in activities having no influence on economic policy. He had been in charge of economic cooperation within the CIS. Bolshakov made a name for himself as vice mayor of St. Petersburg during the early 1990s, when he initiated a grandiose construction project on an "entertainment island," offering investors the Hermitage museum as security. Then he became promoter and manager of another "project of the century" -- construction of a high-speed rail line from Petersburg to Moscow, to cost from $8 billion to $12 billion.

The project comes at a bad time for today's Russia, which has no money for salaries or for conversion. Nevertheless, the project has received a sizeable sum from the budget due to the active and effective lobbying of Bolshakov and the mayors of the two capitals. Just recently the government granted guarantees of $200 million for equipping the station complex of this rail line.

I don't know if Bolshakov can effectively perform as Chernomyrdin's "right hand," but I fear that this first of first deputies will push hard for his pet project, which will cost the taxpayers dearly.

Of course, in the Russian power setup a first deputy, even a first among firsts, has relatively little power. All the main decisions are made by the president in conjunction with the prime minister and, perhaps, the administrative heads. The position of first deputy is a subordinate one. But, at the same time, the first first deputy decides concrete operating questions: who will participate in privatization of an oil company, which bank will receive access to budget finances, which project will receive budget support -- and which won't.

So the personal agenda of the first deputy prime minister never remains just a personal thing. At least, that's the way it's always been up to now.