Putin Promotes Defense Minister

By STEVE GUTTERMAN
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 15, 2007; 1:15 PM

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin promoted hawkish Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to first deputy prime minister Thursday in a move that strengthens his position as a top contender to replace the Kremlin leader in next year's election.

The shift puts Ivanov in the same post as Dmitry Medvedev, who is regarded as a market reformer and liberal. The two men are seen as the leading candidates to succeed Putin.

Anatoly Serdyukov, until now head of the federal tax agency, replaces Ivanov as defense minister.

Putin praised Ivanov in an announcement on the NTV network, saying his close ally "has fulfilled the tasks he faced as defense minister and fulfilled them successfully." He said Ivanov's duties would be broadened to include oversight of defense and some civilian industries, but that he could not hold both positions at the same time.

"He cannot carry out the defense minister's responsibilities _ it's impossible to sit in two chairs," said Putin, who came out with further praise of a beaming Ivanov in a meeting with top Defense Ministry officials shown on state-run television.

Putin said he named Serdyukov, a longtime tax collection official with no military experience, as defense minister because a sweeping arms modernization program planned through 2015 requires an appointee with strong economic and financial experience.

Ivanov, who like Putin formerly worked in the Soviet KGB, had previously served as one of several deputy prime ministers, while Medvedev was the sole first deputy prime minister.

Both Ivanov and Medvedev have in recent months received wide exposure in the Russian media, where coverage is heavily influenced by the Kremlin. Some analysts say their prominence shows that they are the top candidates to become Putin's anointed successor in the March 2008 election.

Putin is enormously popular but barred by law from seeking a third term.

Ivanov's promotion elevates him to the same level with Medvedev and could also boost his image by distancing him from the bloated military, which is plagued by hazing of young conscripts by older soldiers.

But Ivanov would apparently remain in charge of Russia's lucrative arms industry, widely criticized for supplying weapons to Iran and to Hezbollah militants.

Ivanov, who also serves as chairman of the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, is regarded by some Russians as the stronger of the two candidates. Ivanov was named defense minister in March 2001.

"Ivanov has not won kudos as defense minister," said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation think tank's Moscow office. "Now he has finally gotten rid of these nets that dragged him to the bottom and has been given a good, clean job."

Volk said the reshuffle signaled Putin's apparent intention to level the playing field in the competition between Ivanov and Medvedev, whose once-low profile has been boosted since the president put him in charge of "national projects," such as housing improvements and funding increases for education and health care.

Volk said that Ivanov's oversight of the weapons trade would allow the Kremlin to consolidate financial flows. "Arms trade, along with energy revenues, will be a major source for the election campaign, and it's essential (for Putin) to have his own person here," Volk said.

Medvedev, a lawyer, became first deputy prime minister in November 2005.

Yuri Korgunyuk, a top analyst with the independent INDEM think tank, said the reshuffle was Putin's way of reaffirming his dominance of the political scene.

"Formally speaking, it's a promotion for Ivanov, but he remains just a pawn," he said. "It will be up to Putin to decide whether to make this pawn a queen."

Volk also said it was too early to say whether Putin was inclined to anoint Ivanov as a preferred successor. "It's all unpredictable, we may see other candidates," he said.

Korgunyuk said that by shifting the tax chief Serdyukov to the defense minister's job, Putin wanted to tighten controls over the top brass accused of corruption and inefficiency. "Putin put the tax man in charge of the Defense Ministry to combat theft," he said.

Putin also said he named Sergei Naryshkin a vice premier in charge of coordinating government activity on foreign trade, primarily with other former Soviet republics. Russia has been embroiled in disputes with several neighbors that have hurt its image in the West.

Naryshkin had been the Cabinet chief-of-staff.

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Associated Press Writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Associated Press