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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fradkov: Short of Shortcomings

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Many commentators have stated that Monday's nomination of Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister was "unexpected" and "not entirely logical." I would venture to take issue with both of these assertions.

As early as 2002, Fradkov was recommended to President Vladimir Putin as a potential successor to then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, one of the closest people to the president. (Ivanov knows Fradkov well from the period when they worked together in the Security Council.)

However, at the time replacing the government was not on the agenda. And when Fradkov departed for Brussels in the spring of 2003, the future prime minister completely dropped off the radar screen. Yet, as has now become abundantly clear, his name was not taken off the short-list for high government office.

Fradkov's nomination is completely in keeping with Putin's basic political logic and psychology. By choosing a veteran of the Soviet and post-Soviet foreign trade system, who had worked variously as minister of foreign economic relations, deputy secretary of the Security Council, director of the Federal Tax Police and Russia's envoy to the European Union, Putin has clearly demonstrated three things:

First, he made it manifestly apparent that he does not need a politically strong figure as prime minister. While Kasyanov was considered to be a "technical" prime minister, he was in fact a major-league politician. Although nominally he was completely under the control of the president, he had a very significant degree of influence over the economic policymaking of the executive branch.

From 2000 to the first half of 2003, the Kasyanov Cabinet served as guarantor that a balance was observed between the interests of the most powerful business groups, which in turn, endowed the prime minister with a special status. In many ways against his will, he was viewed by the 1990s vintage elite as a potential alternative to Putin -- particularly in the context of the conflict that erupted between the president and the elite last summer.

In a critical situation, such as the upcoming presidential election being declared invalid due to a low turnout, Kasyanov with his authority, striking looks, experience and weight could have become "almost acting president."

The new prime minister, in this respect, is the complete opposite of Kasyanov: He is not a public politician, and thus he cannot in any way be a rival in the political arena to his direct boss. Nor could Fradkov acquire the role of an alternative center around which the elite could consolidate. Devoid of charisma, he will never be attractive as a leader to the electoral "swamp" (Putin's main constituency), and will never be an idol for Russian housewives or their moderate-drinking husbands.

Second, the president sent one of his beloved "universal signals" to the elite, society and to the West (which is very important from Putin's point of view). Liberals genuinely see in Fradkov someone with liberal views, whose economic course will reflect that.

Those in favor of "tightening the screws" can accept Fradkov as an almost-silovik, remembering that he held top posts in the Security Council and the Federal Tax Service. For Putin's electorate, the majority of which are rather skeptical about the oligarchs, Fradkov may be perceived as a veteran of the Tax Police -- someone capable of forcing major corporations to share with the people (in particular, to "nationalize" natural resource revenues).

For Europe and the United States, the new prime minister is a known quantity and can speak to his foreign counterparts in the language of economics, not geopolitical interests. As a former member of the Russian mission to GATT (the forerunner to the WTO) and as envoy to the EU, Fradkov symbolizes Putin's position vis-a-vis alliance with the EU and accession to the WTO.

In other words, Fradkov is Putin's universal soldier: Someone who is agreeable in all respects but, at the same time, who is incapable of cramping the president's style in the domestic or foreign policy arenas.

Third, Putin is not going to hand responsibility for the government to someone from his inner circle (Sergei Ivanov, Alexei Kudrin, Dmitry Kozak, et al.). If Putin appointed one of his friends as prime minister, he would suffer every time the government made a blunder, which would inevitably unbalance the president psychologically.

Moreover, the new Cabinet is to push ahead with unpopular reforms (including housing reform, as a result of which hundreds of thousands of people could be left homeless), and that means that the government will most likely fall within a year to a year and a half of starting work. Putin cannot "betray" one of his close friends or use them as political pocket change, whereas Fradkov is entirely suited to this role.

It is also worth mentioning that Fradkov is an experienced functionary who knows the bureaucratic rules of the game down to a tee.

His instinct for bureaucratic survival is much better developed than his political ambitions. Fradkov knows how to take a fall and thereby to shield his superiors from criticism. He understands the meaning of the fateful phrase "tak nado" or "that is the way it has to be."

When the time comes, he will quit the White House without regret, without causing a scene or a scandal. And he well understands why and for what reason he has been made head of a technical Cabinet.

By proposing that the State Duma confirm the "unexpected" Fradkov, Putin indicated that the formal distancing between the president and the government that has prevailed until now will be maintained.

The head of state intends to be the supreme ruler of Russia, whose power -- despite democratic institutions and procedures -- is derived from God.

The government, in turn, will be the embodiment of the bureaucracy, traditionally hated by the people and perceived by them as opposed to the will of the Good Tsar. It is no coincidence that the new prime minister is, both in appearance and in essence, the personification of a Russian bureaucrat.

Several years ago, I was looking for an apartment but had limited means, and did not like any of the affordable options. The search ran on for several months. And then the estate agent, whom I had hired, gave me an extremely wise piece of advice: If you have a limited budget, do not look for the apartment you really want, but for the one that has the fewest shortcomings.

On Monday, Putin chose a prime minister who is free of obvious shortcomings. Whether Fradkov has obvious merits will soon become clear.



Stanislav Belkovsky, chairman of the Council for National Strategy, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.