Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 2

By Elena Dikun

The biggest political scandal in January was the public put-down Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov received from presidential economic advisor Andrei Illarionov, the like of which no previous head of government had ever had to endure before. Illarionov is well known for his speeches criticizing the government.

Speaking about relations between the government and the creditors of the Paris Club, Illarionov compared Kasyanov to a lout urinating in the lift–boldly invoking President Vladimir Putin’s name in the process.

Even Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin–who himself once waged an all-out war against then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–was far more circumspect in his comments, and he far outranks a mere adviser. The public, long accustomed to the quirks of Russian polemics, were immediately on their guard: Something was clearly brewing in the upper echelons. Either Illarionov was speaking out of turn and thus faces the threat of dismissal by way of punishment, or his act was a piece of propaganda in preparation for a change of government. The second was especially a possibility in view of the fact that the almost weekly rumors that the prime minister is about to be replaced have recently been embellished with further details: Security Council secretary Sergei Ivanov and deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov are doggedly trying to push Voloshin into the prime minister’s chair. Voloshin himself, however, is stubbornly digging his heels in, worried that he wouldn’t last long if he moved from the Kremlin to the White House.

Regardless, the information at our disposal suggests that there is no immediate prospect either of the government being purged or the advisor being banished. The affair seems to have blown over. Putin merely reprimanded Illarionov, telling him to control himself in the future. Even then, the reproof was only issued after complaints about the behavior of Putin’s adviser had been received from White House personnel–Vice Premier Aleksei Kudrin and Economic Development Minister German Gref.

Immediately after leaving the president, Illarionov headed for one of the Western embassies. Heeding the admonition he’d received, he used much softer language, did not so much attacking the government as taking it to task in a paternal sort of way. Asked whether he had been severely reprimanded by his boss for the trouble he’d caused, Illarionov replied with a sly grin, “That’s my job.”

A senior Kremlin aide confirmed that it was indeed Illarionov’s job to criticize the government, though he did of course need to keep his tongue in better check. “Illarionov is in essence providing cover for the president. If the negotiations to restructure the debt to the Paris Club collapse, it will be the government’s failure alone. The president, naturally, stands aloof from this. Right from the outset his adviser was saying that the government’s behavior towards the Western creditors was loutish.”

No one is predicting what will happen to the cabinet after this. For now the only thing hanging over the government is the imminent restructuring. Ever since Putin asked Kasyanov in early December to initiate a reform of his department, everyone in the Kremlin and the White House who could be bothered to make the effort has been concocting stories about it. The Security Council has also joined in on a voluntary basis. Putin, Voloshin and Kasyanov are supervising the project. A flood of draft proposals has already been submitted–and all the authors are regularly leaking to the press and befuddling the process. Even the authors themselves are now confused about which ministries to merge, which to abolish, which to downsize and who to demote.

Nothing has yet been decided. These are only drafts. Only the most general issues have been decided in principle. For example, it is proposed to cut the number of vice premiers from five to three, to create fourteen ministries out of the current twenty-four, and to put some ministerial functions under the purview of state enterprises. There are several systems for strengthening the ministries and departments, but they are all based on one idea: Every minister hoping to keep his place in the new model government is trying to get his hands on a stronger and more influential department. Aleksei Kudrin, for example, has aspirations of heading a block responsible for the allocation of all budgetary funds, which he thinks should incorporate the Ministry of Finance, the Customs Committee, the tax authorities, the Federal Export Commission and the Federal Securities Commission. However, no one is quite clear about how all these departments can fit under one roof. Given its import, only a vice premier–in fact only the first vice premier–could be entrusted with the running of such a monster. Meanwhile, in exchange for the job of vice premier, Valentina Matvienko is prepared to settle for control of a ministry combining the current ministries of labor, federation affairs and health plus the state committee for sport and tourism. But this plan is also controversial. Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov believes that it makes more sense to merge sport and tourism with the ministries for culture, education and the press.

These plans do not provide a suitable niche for the current minister for labor and social development, Aleksandr Pochinok, though he is known to have been one of the first to submit his own restructuring plan, and moreover is thought to be one of the authors of the original project to merge the Press Ministry with the Ministry for Internal Affairs. The bigwigs probably saw this as an attempt by Pochinok to seize the initiative from one of the more prominent reformers; such behavior is not approved of in public service.

Communications Minister Leonid Reiman is keen to consolidate his position: He is lobbying for his ministry to be bolstered by using some of the property appropriated from the Science Ministry, and by expropriating broadcasting centers from the Press Ministry. For his part, Economic Development Minister German Gref hopes to expand his department at the expense of the Ministry for Antimonopoly Policy. It looks as if he will achieve that, but all the predictions are that he will lose a profitable chunk of his empire–foreign trade–as a result of which he, as the country’s chief planner, will forfeit a great deal of political clout.

The corridors of the White House once again echo to lively discussion of the old plans for merging the Energy and Atomic Energy Ministries, and the Transport and Railways Ministries. But the success of these projects will depend on whether the minions of the old “Family” Mikhail Adamov and Nikolai Aksenenko will be able to resist this pressure. Moreover, while the argument is raging, Aksenenko may have time to take his department out from under state control by refashioning it as a Russian Joint Stock Company called “Railways” (RAO “Zheleznye dorogi”).

By no means all departments are due to be integrated. Some are earmarked for partition. It is quite possible that the old idea of turning the Ministry of Defense into a purely civilian department will be implemented by assigning it responsibility for the defense industry but transferring troop management to the General Staff. There is talk of “dispossessing” the Ministry for Emergency Situations: The paramilitary formations would be handed over to the General Staff, civil defense to the Defense Ministry and Sergei Shoigu would be left with what he started with–a corps of rescue-workers. In simple terms, this powerful ministry would be reduced to a humdrum rescue service. It has been proposed to dispense with the Ministry for Conservation altogether and parcel out its functions among various departments.

However, it will only become clear which of the above proposals will be endorsed in late April or early May, when the “review commission” consisting of Putin, Kasyanov and Voloshin issues its final verdict. No changes in the composition of the jury are expected before then either.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya Gazeta.