Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 5

By Elena Dikun

From snippets of information and hints dropped recently in private discussions by major players in Russia’s political process, one gains the impression that something serious is going on in the upper echelons. Our interlocutors wink conspiratorially and talk in riddles, implying that major personnel changes can be expected in the near future. Admittedly, the testimony is contradictory; the witnesses each have their own theory about the imminent reshuffle. This is evidently because nobody actually knows what will really happen. The changes will probably be implemented in the spirit of the reshuffle in the power ministries in March, when the circle of people party to the plans was so small that it did not even include Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin.

One senior official close to the president is certain that Vladimir Putin will replace the entire old guard during the course of this year, but in stages rather than all at once. The first wave of reshuffles took place in March; the second can be expected in late spring or early summer, and a third in the autumn. Our source recalled that when Putin became head of the FSB, he did not touch any of the old guard for a long time; then when everybody had relaxed he began his clearing out. He will do the same with the government and the Kremlin administration.

The question uppermost in people’s minds is whether Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov will survive long in his job. The flames were fanned by memos sent to the head of state by the chairman of the Audit Office, Sergei Stepashin. In mid-March Stepashin sent Putin an important memorandum informing him that the government was failing to implement its own program: They had run out of time on one issue, failed to see through another issue, run into trouble on a third, and so on and so forth. Essentially Stepashin was indicating that the prime minister was not quite up to the job. Kasyanov is said to have felt a curious mixture of emotions when he heard about Stepashin’s letter through his own channels: On the one hand he was furious that a subordinate had “reported” on him to his boss; on the other hand he was alarmed that Stepashin’s arguments might influence the president and that he would make the corresponding organizational changes. For six weeks the thought preyed on Kasyanov’s mind: What would Putin do? When the president eventually passed Stepashin’s memo to the prime minister with the comment “Your views please”, Kasyanov immediately responded with the reply he had prepared: “The Audit Office should be concerning itself with whether budget funds are being spent properly, not monitoring other organizations”, and sent the document straight back to the Kremlin. Recently the ill-starred letter reappeared in the White House, this time with the president’s conclusion: “I agree”. Kasyanov breathed a sigh of relief, and various colleagues of his lost no time in offering their interpretation of Putin’s comment: The issue was closed, Stepashin had been sent packing, and from now on any attempt on his part to take over the prime minister’s job would be futile. But this certainly does not mean that Kasyanov’s future as prime minister is a rosy one.

Witnesses say that the prime minister has sprung into life this spring, and is more focused and active than he has ever been. For the first time ever, a work schedule for the government has been drawn up three weeks ahead, and Kasyanov is constantly harrying ministers, not giving them a moment’s respite. Some see Kasyanov’s burst of energy as a sign that he is confident in his future, while others conversely believe that he is very edgy and is desperate to demonstrate to Putin in any way he can that he is irreplaceable–particularly as the president has been rather discourteous to his prime minister. For example, a couple of times a week he goes over Kasyanov’s head and invites the vice-premiers to the Kremlin to assign them tasks. And recently Vladimir Putin even appeared at a ministry of finance meeting, flying in the face of bureaucratic protocol. In short, the head of state seems to be deliberately indicating that he does not fully trust his prime minister. Then along comes Stepashin with his “goodwill message”, and the constant rumors of a change of government, where the word is that the Kremlin has already decided: The next prime minister will be the current Minister for Economic Development German Gref. Or perhaps–this is the latest theory–the deputy head of the Central Bank, Tat’yana Paramonova.

Mikhail Kasyanov is seen as a creature of the old “Family”, which raised him to the political heights. And this being the case, as long as Voloshin is in the Kremlin Kasyanov will not be touched. But nobody really knows how comfortable Voloshin is at the moment. His colleagues say that he is tired and yearns for freedom, but the boss will not release him from state service. Outside observers claim that this is just an excuse, and that in fact a replacement is being actively sought for the chief of staff. The possibility is purportedly being considered of replacing Voloshin with his deputy Vladislav Surkov, whose rating has shot up since his successful operation to merge Unity with Fatherland. However, the siloviki [power ministers and military leaders] are wary of Surkov, and the president listens to them when taking important decisions. In social terms, Surkov is alien to the men in uniform; he is by nature creative and driven, and his past is mysterious. In his youth Surkov wrote sketches and studied at drama school, but dropped out halfway through; subsequently he worked in commercial banks and courted the oligarchs. This is why the “military council” headed by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov would prefer to see this key post occupied not by a “dubious PR man” but by a dependable ally, such as FSB director Nikolai Patrushev.

Clearly, any such changes in the Kremlin administration would inevitably be followed by a government reshuffle. As yet, only the fate of two key players in Putin’s team–Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Economic Development Minister Gref–is relatively clear. They will certainly remain in one role or another after the imminent governmental restructuring. Up until now the St. Petersburg reformers have been playing against Kasyanov in tandem, coordinating their actions. But recently the consensus between them has started to break down, and jealousy has reared its head. Kudrin and Gref are practically engaged in a public show of force to determine who is the more important. Gref aspires to the role of economic strategist, and believes that the ministry of finance should fund his programs. Meanwhile, Kudrin also wants to determine strategy rather than just play treasurer to Gref. There is another fundamental question: Which of them is dearer to Putin? Both ministers count themselves among the president’s friends, and happily call on him at his residence in Novo-Ogarevo–unlike the prime minister, who never visits Putin without an invitation. Those in the know say that in order to dampen passions a little, the president is considering seconding his economic adviser Andrei Illarionov to the government as a vice-premier, to act as a buffer between Gref and Kudrin. In any case, having completely fallen out with Illarionov over payment of the foreign debt, both ministers have been in a hurry to patch things up with him.

The fate of railways minister Nikolai Aksenenko has pretty much been decided: His close proximity to the “Family” is finally about to catch up with him, and he is to be removed from the cabinet. It is rumored that the former head of the government of Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, will be placed in charge of the railways. His resume shows that he has the relevant experience: He commanded the rail troops and was a deputy minister for railways. Incidentally, after Koshman was removed from Chechnya and demoted from the rank of vice premier, his nameplate was not removed from the door of his office in the White House–a sure sign that a new job in the government is being sought for him.

According to our sources, Mikhail Lesin will be another victim of the reforms; his historic mission is deemed to have been accomplished after the takeover of NTV by Gazprom. In line with a Security Council proposal, it is planned to abolish the ministry of the press altogether, merging it with the ministries of culture and education. The working title for the new department is “ministry of ideology”, but a more politically correct name is being thought up and a reliable candidate is being sought to run it. As the Security Council does not have its own ideologue, it is possible that Surkov may be put in charge of this ministry–unless the Kremlin decides to go for early Duma elections in December, in which case Surkov’s experience in influencing the deputies will be invaluable, and it is unlikely that they will let him go. There are rumors that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s ministerial service is coming to an end. According to a senior Kremlin official, the president has no particular complaints about Ivanov. The foreign minister’s biography contains only one flaw: He is seen as a “Berezovsky man,” even though he has not been on friendly terms with him for some time. However, the reform process has its own logic: Changes among the siloviki inevitably entail changes in the political bloc.

Nevertheless, according to Duma and government sources, the Kremlin does in fact harbor some grievances against the Foreign Ministry (MID). For example, the presidential administration cannot forgive two recent major blunders. MID reported to the Kremlin that Milosevic was certain to win the Yugoslav presidential elections and that there was no point making overtures to the opposition in Belgrade. Then in exactly the same way, just before the US elections MID predicted that Al Gore would win, telling Putin that the Republican Bush had no chance. On top of this, the presidential administration is unhappy with MID’s dealings with the CIS countries and its lack of concern with Russia’s economic interests abroad, even though the head of state believes that this should be the diplomats’ first priority.

Ivanov has his detractors outside the Kremlin too. Our sources say that the Foreign Intelligence Service is forever complaining about him. Russian ambassadors have apparently started treating resident intelligence officers badly, making it difficult for them to operate. This theory has it that MID is mainly to blame for the notorious failures of our secret agents, from Robert Hansen to the four moles working under cover in the Russian Embassy in the United States.

The search for a worthy successor to Igor Ivanov has been underway for some weeks now. Three professional diplomats featured in the shortlist of candidates: First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev, the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom Grigory Karasin and Russia’s permanent representative at the UN Sergei Lavrov. However, the Petersburg team thinks that MID needs an injection of new blood. This has resulted in the candidacy of the president’s special envoy on human rights and freedoms in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov. By training Kalamanov is a professional diplomat and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations; he headed a department in the ministry of nationalities and federal relations, and ran the Federal Migration Service between April 1999 and February 2000. Those who know Kalamanov describe him as a capable, reliable man who is loyal to the president. Kalamanov will not try to follow his own agenda, which is particularly important because the Kremlin believes that the president should make foreign policy. This means that MID should be run not by a strategist, but by a disciplined executor.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya Gazeta.