Acting President Vladimir Putin today fired a top Kremlin manager implicated in a bribery scandal, a fresh sign that he does not want his administration tainted by the controversies that surrounded his predecessor.
In addition to removing Pavel Borodin as head of the Kremlin properties office, Putin elevated Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to the post of first deputy prime minister--in effect, his second in command--reassuring some critics who had expressed concern that Putin lacks a clear economic policy.
Political analysts said those and other personnel moves announced today seem designed to demonstrate that Putin is decisive and eager for change. "He's showing he wants to move forward and not to continue the stagnation that existed under [Boris] Yeltsin," said one Western diplomat in an interview. "I think that is going to go over favorably in the West." Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31, automatically elevating Putin from prime minister to acting president until a special election is held March 26.
In the main, though, Putin has shuffled aides more than replaced them, with the notable exception of Yeltsin's daughter and close adviser, Tatyana Dyachenko, whom he fired last week. Putin cast today's personnel moves as temporary, pending the presidential ballot. Political analysts predicted that he will reserve any more dramatic moves--should they occur at all--until after the election, which he is favored overwhelmingly to win.
In removing Borodin from the office that oversees government buildings, estates and businesses, Putin disposed of one of the most visible symbols of Yeltsin's seeming tolerance for official corruption. Although Swiss authorities alleged months ago that Kremlin contractors had paid millions of dollars in bribes to Borodin's office to obtain government business, the Kremlin continued to support him and even backed him in December elections as a candidate for mayor of Moscow against incumbent Yuri Luzhkov. Putin said Borodin will now be state secretary for the Russia-Belarus unity talks, a largely ceremonial post.
Putin also removed the two men who had been serving as first deputy prime ministers. Viktor Khristenko, a Yeltsin holdover, was demoted to deputy prime minister, while Nikolai Aksyonenko, a favorite of some politically influential tycoons, will retain his secondary post as railways minister. Some legislators have accused Aksyonenko of favoring specific carriers as overseer of state railways, but he has never responded to the allegations.
Kasyanov is known to the West mostly as a hard-nosed negotiator on Russia's international debt agreements. In an apparent reference to the coterie of business magnates who influenced the Kremlin under Yeltsin--known here as the "oligarchs"--Putin said Kasyanov will be a "lawful coordinator" rather than a "shadow leader."
Other Kremlin officials said that Kasyanov's appointment shows that reversing Russia's economic decline is Putin's top priority. Putin has gained great popularity with the Russian public since his appointment as prime minister five months ago largely because he has aggressively pursued the war against separatist rebels in Chechnya. His economic policy, however, has not yet been laid out.
Kasyanov is not viewed as an economic reformer in the mold of former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko or former finance minister Mikhail Zadornov, but in the current group of Kremlin aides, "Kasyanov is about the best," said Roland Nash, an analyst with the Moscow office of MFK Renaissance, an investment firm. "Nobody is saying that this man has a great reputation or that he is an all-out reformer, but I was expecting worse," Nash said.
Peter Boone, head of research for the brokerage firm Brunswick Warburg, said Kasyanov is "one of the best negotiators in the world and an excellent person to get across an agenda--if Putin has an agenda."
In a document published on the Kremlin Web site, Putin succinctly described Russia's economic problems, including dwindling investment, antiquated industrial equipment and abysmally low productivity. Russia needs to move fast to reverse its decline, he wrote, but he presented no specific solutions.
Officials of the International Monetary Fund have objected to his decision to require Russian companies to repatriate 100 percent of their profits on exports--his sole economic initiative to date. IMF deputy managing director Stanley Fischer said recently that the IMF may ask Russia to scrap that requirement before it receives any more loan disbursements.
Putin's request that Russian Central Bank officials look into the possibility of lowering interest rates also disturbed some Western economists, who said he might decide to loosen monetary controls and risk fueling inflation.
In other personnel moves today, Putin elevated Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to the rank of deputy prime minister. Shoigu had played a key role in propelling a political party backed by Putin to an impressive showing in the parliamentary elections last month.