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.
Ivanov and Putin both served in the Leningrad Directorate of the KGB, although Putin and Ivanov have said they did not know each other very well at the time. Since Putin first moved to Moscow in 1996, initially to take an administrative position in the Kremlin, the two have become increasingly close. In August 1998, Ivanov became deputy director of the FSB, the internal security agency, which Putin headed at the time.
In November 1999, Ivanov moved to the Kremlin on the recommendation of Putin, then prime minister, to become secretary of the Security Council. And in 2001, Putin appointed him defense minister, the first non-military person to head the ministry.
After President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned and Putin became acting president, he was asked who on his team he trusted. "Trust? Sergei Ivanov," he replied, as related in the question-and-answer book "First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President," based on 24 hours of interviews with him by a panel of Russian journalists.
Ivanov is widely believed to be less ensnared than Medvedev in the opaque but fierce rivalries of different interest groups around Putin in the Kremlin and could emerge as an acceptable alternative for those against Medvedev's candidacy, according to some analysts.
Igor Sechin, another St. Petersburg native, who is a Kremlin official as well as chairman of Rosneft, a Gazprom rival, is reported to oppose Medvedev. Sechin is said to lead a Kremlin faction that represents the interests of security service members who would like to see Putin stay on for a third term. That is barred by the constitution and has been ruled out by the president.
"Putin's main aim is to keep stability, and if Medvedev becomes president there will be a fight," said Aleksey Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information, in an interview. "Sergei Ivanov, I believe, is stronger. He has very good relations with other groups, including Sechin. He can ensure stability."
As defense minister, Ivanov established a reputation as a hawk, albeit one still able to charm his Western interlocutors. He has opposed expansion of the NATO alliance, clashed with the pro-Western leadership in neighboring Georgia and opposed U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
He was replaced as defense minister by Anatoly Serdyukov, the head of Russia's tax service.