Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 41

Moscow is again awash in rumors of an impending shake-up at the top of Russia’s government. Argumenty i Fakty, one of Russia’s most widely read newspapers, reported in this week’s issue that President Vladimir Putin is likely to replace his cabinet soon–specifically, immediately after he delivers the annual presidential address to parliament.

According to the paper, several politicians have been lobbying hard to become Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s replacement. One is former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, currently the president’s authorized representative in the Volga federal district, whose representatives have reportedly asked a number of the Russian media’s top editors to take part in a campaign to “recruit” Kirienko as Kasyanov’s replacement. According to Argumenty i Fakty, Kirienko, who was prime minister during the August 1998 financial meltdown in Russia, also informed Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin that he is ready for another go at the post. The newspaper named Boris Nemtsov, head of the Union of Right-Wing Forces’ faction in the State Duma and a former deputy prime minister, as another possible candidate to replace Kasyanov. Nemtsov has been quite public in laying out various initiatives this year, including a possible political settlement to the Chechen conflict. On the other hand, he has also been quite critical of certain Kremlin decisions, including the recent appointment of former Primorsky Krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko as head of the State Fisheries Committee, and is thought to harbor ambitions to run for president in 2008, which could be harmed by a tour of duty as prime minister. A third possible candidate to replace Kasyanov is another former prime minister–Sergei Stepashin, who currently heads the Audit Chamber, the independent state budgetary watchdog agency. According to Argument i Fakty, Stepashin is in some ways an ideal candidate, given that he, like Putin, hails from St. Petersburg and is a former “power minister” who headed both the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service. On the other hand, Stepashin has historically been close to the St. Petersburg group of economists which was led by Anatoly Chubais and which included Aleksei Kudrin, who is now a deputy prime minister. This group, the paper noted, has strong enemies within the current administration. In 1999, Chubais and others reportedly pushed former President Boris Yeltsin to anoint Stepashin as his successor. But Yeltsin, as he indicated in his recent book “Midnight Diaries,” decided that Stepashin was too soft and opted instead for Putin.

Argumenty i Fakty laid out another possible scenario: that Voloshin takes Kasyanov’s place as prime minister, with Sergei Ivanov taking over as Kremlin chief of staff while retaining his job as secretary of the Kremlin’s powerful Security Council. The paper noted that such a scenario would provide Putin tactical flexibility, given that the left in the State Duma might succeed in blocking the confirmation of Voloshin–whom they hate for his past association with the tycoon Boris Berezovsky–which would allow Putin to dissolve the Duma and call new elections, thereby ending up with both a new government and a new parliament (Argumenty i Fakty, February 28).

Kasyanov’s removal has been rumored since last summer, when some observers predicted that Sergei Ivanov would replace him (see the Monitor, August 11, 2000). The fact that Russia’s economy is apparently hitting the skids after a year of growth makes it more likely that Kasyanov will be replaced. Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s economic adviser, warned last week that the Russian economy was in recession (see the Monitor, February 23).