Russian Leader Expands Powers of a Possible Successor

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 16, 2007

MOSCOW, Feb. 15 -- President Vladimir Putin promoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the post of first deputy prime minister Thursday, an elevation that immediately intensified speculation that Putin might favor him as his successor.

"Ivanov has been coping and coping well with the day-to-day tasks of the Defense Ministry," Putin said at a televised government meeting where he announced the promotion as part of a government reshuffle. "Given the expansion of his powers, Ivanov will no longer be able to keep the post of defense minister."

Ivanov, 54, will now be charged with overseeing Russia's military-industrial complex as well as part of the civilian economy. He was recently put in charge of consolidating and revitalizing Russia's aviation industry.

"In terms of the succession, this is definitely another step for Ivanov," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites, in an interview. "He will become a less parochial and more universal figure for the public. And that is essential if he is to become president."

Ivanov bade farewell to senior Defense Ministry staff in a ceremony Thursday night. "I remember well how Vladimir Vladimirovich introduced me in this same hall six years ago," he said, using Putin's first two names. "A long time, but it now seems like one moment. I want to thank you all for backing me."

But for all the apparent nostalgia, the new brief allows Ivanov to shed a ministry fraught with political risk because of the Russian military's propensity to generate scandals, particularly the violent hazing of young recruits. The death of a young conscript last year and Ivanov's slowness in responding to it briefly galvanized public opinion against him.

Ivanov's new position puts him on the same level in government as Dmitri Medvedev, who is also a first deputy prime minister and chairman of the energy conglomerate Gazprom. The two men now appear to be in an open contest for Putin's nod -- the decisive factor in determining who will become president in elections in March 2008.

Putin said this month that he will make his choice known during the campaign early next year. Because of his huge popularity and standing with voters, his endorsement will certainly swing the job to his preferred candidate, according to numerous opinion polls and analysts here.

Russian officials, including Ivanov, have rejected claims that Putin will simply anoint a successor who will be rubber-stamped through a controlled election.

"We won't have any successors or crown princes," Ivanov said last week at an international security conference in Munich, where Putin launched a blistering attack on U.S. foreign policy. "Who will be the president of Russia is for the Russian people to decide in the March 2008 elections. In this respect Russia does not differ from any other democracy in the world."

Like Putin, Ivanov had a long career as a KGB official. In private meetings, he displays a low-key toughness that is similar to the president's. He speaks English fluently, having lived for several months with a family in London as a student. He also speaks Swedish and reportedly served in Sweden. But as with many aspects of his 20 years in foreign intelligence, it is unclear exactly where he served.

Both Ivanov and Medvedev have ties to the president that reach back to their mutual home town, St. Petersburg. Medvedev, a 41-year-old lawyer, worked with Putin in city hall in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. There they formed a bond that led Putin to bring Medvedev into the presidential administration in Moscow.

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