Putin's government reshuffle ends with great disappointment and pleasant surprises

President Vladimir Putin announced the names of ministers in the new Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on September 24. The key ministers of the previous cabinet have retained their positions, and all resignations are in no occasion connected with the appointment of the new prime minister. In fact, the Cabinet now has the same structure as before. It was the replacement of the prime minister that became the central intrigue.

It was anticipated that a shift might take place in the government this autumn several months before presidential election and election to the State Duma in Russia. Some experts expected that President Putin would promote his successor to presidency to let him get well prepared for governmental work and presidency. But Vladimir Putin acted in a different way. With the view of keeping the entire of formal and informal authority in the country the president replaced one technical government with another one with a politically heavier figure of Viktor Zubkov at head. According to Vladimir Putin, the previous government was getting ineffective in view of coming elections, and many of the ministers were anxious about their future employment rather than about their responsibilities. The explanation suggests that the new government has been probably formed for a short period of time, and its key figures may retain their positions when a new president comes to power and the structure of the cabinet in general will be renewed. Vladimir Putin also stated that the administrative reform in the framework of which he said the previous cabinet had functioned was unfit for Russia. But in fact the reform was simply profane. Also, it took a long period of time to make personnel and structural decisions with no information published about them at all which in its turn created a big intrigue about a prospective government. Viktor Zubkov claims that the role of the government will be changed. He has made efforts to represent himself as a politically strong figure able to manage the government and take it out from the president’s manual control. All the above factors implied that the new government would be considerably renewed.

Vladimir Putin announced two days ago at a session of the government that the cabinet was just slightly changed and the rotation of ministers was a technical thing.

Minister for economic development and trade German Gref resigned after he several times declared he was going to retire to the business sphere. The liberal minister did not fit the new economic policy of Russia that means a more active role of the government, emergence of state corporations and increase of governmental assets in competitive spheres, all the things to which German Gref always objected. In other words, he quitted because he did not want to work in a technically weak government, and the government does not need the too strong minister with his heavy political weight. Liberal economist Elvira Nabiullina has taken his place. The new female minister can be an ideological successor to Gref’s line and at the same time she has no political weight yet.

The resignation of Minister for Social Development and Health Mikhail Zurabov is connected with the coming elections. Within the past time the minister has become an object of people’s dislike and indignation because of the cash-for-benefits welfare reform conducted in Russia in 2005 and the program for selling medications at a reduced price for people with low incomes. The United Russia party several times suggested dismissing the minister but the president would not get rid of the minister who positioned himself as an extremelyessentialofficial. Former deputy minister of finance Tatyana Golikova (she is also wife of industry and energy minister Viktor Khristenko) has taken Zurabov’s place. By the way, it seems to be a stable tradition in Russia to appoint a woman head of the social department.

The third resignation in the cabinet is connected with failure of minister for regional development Vladimir Yakovlev. The minister was appointed to the position in 2003 after he retired from the post of St.Petersburg governor and actively participated in an election campaign of Valentina Matvienko who later became the governor of the city instead of him. Political observers state that Vladimir Yakovlev was not able to cope with his responsibilities and it was quite logical that he has been dismissed. Presidential plenipotentiary in Russia’s south federal district Dmitry Kozak has been appointed minister for regional development. It is said that the scope of the department’s responsibilities will be increased taking into consideration Kozak’s considerable political weight. It was clear that Dmitry Kozak would be back to Moscow sooner or later as he is known as one of the most effective and most loyal to the president functionaries. His activity in the sphere of regional policy was rather successful.

Advancement of Alexey Kudrin to the position of vice-premier has become the only surprise of the recent cabinet reshuffling. And the fact is even more important than the replacement of the prime minister. This promotion means that the president approves of Kudrin’s tough budgetary policy that could be under the threat of frustration in case of the minister’s resignation. Kudrin’s appointment is also a serious blow for Viktor Zubkov as it is known that both are in competitive terms. Last spring, the minister of finance announced resignation of Zubkov from the position of the financial intelligence chief. That resignation put an end to the struggle for control over the banking sphere between the Ministry of Finance and Russia’s Central Bank.

It is important that the newly appointed prime minister was not allowed to form a cabinet of his own, and the government he now heads has the structure that President Putin approves. It is likely that Viktor Zubkov was not an active participant of forming the new government. So, it seems that Viktor Zubkov will perform the role of the president’s envoy in the government but not a real leader. In other words, Viktor Zubkov has got a cabinet formed by the previous prime minister and consisting of officials having free access to the president.

President Putin has once again demonstrated that he is the key figure in Russia’s political life and shocked the society with his unpredictable decision. But this time the situation differs from all previous situations of the sort. It is highly likely that Putin had to seriously deviate from the scenario he had planned to implement together with appointment of a new prime minister. He gave up the idea of replacement of the cabinet to avoid a misbalance in his circle and also because he did not want the cabinet to grow too strong. The president preferred stability to effectiveness at the hard period of coming elections. Earlier President Putin did not plan to appoint Viktor Zubkov prime minister and even wanted to make him a senator in the upper chamber of the parliament. The hesitation in making important strategic decisions reveals that Vladimir Putin is getting less confident of his actions and can not foresee what consequences they may have. At that, influential figures of his circles are always eager to benefit from the situation.


Translated by Maria Gousseva

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov