Putin has named his new cabinet. Despite heated speculation in the media, the changes are fairly small. Almost all the ministers kept their jobs. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin kept his post, but has also been elevated to deputy prime minister. Minister of Economic Development and Trade Germain Gref is out, replaced by his former deputy Elvira Nabiullina. Gref’s departure was widely expected, so no big surprises there. Dmitri Kozak, former envoy to the South Federal District (southern Russia and the Caucasus), has been appointed minister of regional development. Lastly, Deputy Finance Minister Tatyana Golikova takes over as minister of health and social development. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov retains his position, as Putin refused to accept the resignation he tendered last week (due to his familial relationship with incoming Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov).
Both Kozak and Kudrin are old Putin colleagues from his St. Petersburg days, and are thus identified more with the “liberals” than with the “siloviki” (the men of power). Elvira Nabiullina is also generally viewed as part of the liberal faction. Their new positions could suggest that the star of the liberals–and thus, potentially, Dmitri Medvedev–is on the rise. At the very least, it helps to keep things balanced–and everyone guessing, two primary goals for Putin these days, it seems.
It is also worthwhile to note that Putin’s new cabinet includes two women. Despite Soviet-era official protestations of gender equality, Russian politics have remained a resolutely male preserve.
Kommersant, however, draws our attention to the growing importance of familial ties within the government: nepotism is alive and well in contemporary Russia. Not only is Defense Minister Serdyukov the son-in-law of Prime Minister Zubkov, but Tatyana Golikova is married to Minister of Industry and Energy Viktor Khristenko. Kommersant’s quick investigation shows multiple instances of familial relationships that might violate Russian laws against supervisory relationships between close relatives within Russian government entities.
No, I don’t know what to make of this either:
In a meeting with the Valdai Discussion Group, a group of academics and journalists, in the Black Sea town of Sochi (now best known for its successful Olympic bid), Vladimir Putin commented, “Now, at least five people are named who can really stake their claim to be elected president in March 2008. Well, if another real candidate appears, then the Russian people will be able to choose among several people.”
The only person (other than opposition candidates without a prayer) who has explicitly expressed interest in running is Viktor Zubkov (who, as you recall, was a complete unknown before, oh, Wednesday). First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev are generally understood to be contenders, though neither has publicly expressed interest or intent.
But who are the remaining two? No one knows and everyone is talking about it.
And that noise coming from over there in the corner? That’s Comrade Vladimir Vladimirovich, laughing heartily at the big joke he’s playing on us.
The Duma hasn’t even confirmed Viktor Zubkov as Russia’s new prime minister, and already he’s raising eyebrows. Early commentary on Zubkov pegged him as a quietly competent bureaucrat who was unlikely to make waves or alter the balance of the intra-Kremlin jockeying over succession.
But it’s so much fun to confound the pundits: today Zubkov told reporters that a run for the presidency is not off the table.
So who is this mysterious fellow?
Here’s a summary from the various bios floating around the media. Like former president Yeltsin, he’s originally from the Sverdlovsk region in the southern Urals (Sverdlovsk is once again known as Yekaterinburg). After receiving a degree in economics from the Leningrad Agricultural Institute, he was a collective farm manager in the Leningrad oblast. He first became associated with Vladimir Putin in the 1990s, when both worked for the St. Petersburg city administration. In 2001, Putin appointed him to the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which is responsible for combating money-laundering; as such Zubkov has been an important Putin ally in his campaign to reign in the oligarchs. He seems to be well-liked and respected within the business and financial community.
Putin is known to keep his St. Petersburg associates close, so that connection is unsurprising. There are no major resume gaps or foreign posting that would be suggestive of KGB service. Interestingly, Zubkov’s daughter is married to acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov; such quasi-feudal alliances aren’t that unusual in post-Soviet space, but it is suggestive of the ways in which the inner circles of power are tied to one another personally, not merely professionally.
I also think that the choice of a prime minister with clear anti-corruption credentials is no accident. Anti-corruption is a useful political stance, even if it’s selective. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, as improbable as it may seem, originally rode into office on his name as an anti-corruption crusader. Kommersant also hints that should Zubkov successfully run for president on an anti-corruption platform, no one would be surprised if Zubkov, who is currently 66, declined to seek a second term, unlike Dmitri Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov, who are both comparatively young. The Russian constitution only prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Rumors have already been floating around that Putin could seek another term in 2012. The problem is finding a successor who isn’t interested in holding onto the office as long as possible. Could Zubkov fit that bill?
In addition to his unexpected comments on his political future, Zubkov has also promised some cabinet changes. We’ll be keeping an eye on those in the coming weeks.