Tue, 23 May 2000

Putin stumbles over the old Kremlin guard

By Dmitry Zaks

MOSCOW (AFP): President Vladimir Putin is racing to stamp his authority by clamping down on regional powers but betraying weakness by keeping by his side many of the powerful but scandal- tainted men he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.

This tactic may indicate that Putin has used his first two weeks as Kremlin chief being selective over which battles to fight first -- despite his enormous powers as president he is still too new to Russian politics to have his own team occupy all of the prestigious posts.

And yet his March 26 first-round election win gave him a mandate to rearrange the country's political structure and tilt it even further in favor of a president who people actually believe will get the job done.

Some reports suggest that Putin is chipping away at authority of agencies which do not employ his old friends, such as the foreign ministry, and handing them to those that do -- the security council, led by his old KGB comrade Sergei Ivanov.

"According to small-time politicians, even they lately have been forced to frequent the security council," the Kommersant business daily reported.

"They not only bring foreign relations and industrial documents for approval, but even those dealing with agriculture."

Indeed friends and foes alike note that for better or worse, the pace in Moscow has picked up decisively since Putin's May 7 inauguration.

The first thing Putin did after winning lawmakers' confirmation of Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister was to call regional governors -- many of whom have outstanding complaints about Moscow's rule -- into the Kremlin.

There he announced that he was planning to strip them of their seats in parliament. Surprisingly, most of the governors acquiesced.

"We have to create a power-structure which is set up not only for this generation of politicians ... but one that strengthens Russia as a whole for years to come," said Federation Council upper house of parliament chairman Sergei Stroyev.

Liberal lower house lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov added: "There is a window of opportunity (for the president) which has not existed since Boris Yeltsin took emergency powers in 1991," when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Yet even controversial media allies of the old Kremlin, like controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta, question how long this presidential honeymoon will last.

"The tempo set by the new president is impressive," the daily wrote. But then it added: "Putin has proposed reforms to save Russia for which the country is not quite ready."

Putin's first two weeks in office have seen Russia's liberal media accuse the new president of assuming that he is a tsar and doing remarkably little to shove shadowy Yeltsin-era influences out of government.

Yet at the same time most foreign investors here are applauding Putin and Kasyanov for "sticking to a solid set of young technocrats" in the new government.

"It is clear that there has been no reversion to the power- mongers of the Yeltsin era," the Renaissance Capital investment bank said in a recent research note.

The optimism of foreign investors was boosted by the appointment of two young liberals in the finance and economy posts.

But it was hardly an overhaul. Only four of Russia's 24 newly appointed ministers had not served in the old government.

"The new government's principle quality is that is does not significantly differ from the old one," Kommersant wrote after most of the government was set into place by Thursday.

"This means that this cabinet will not survive for long. Otherwise, one will have to admit that the president's promise to change everything in Russia from producing a 'national idea' to implementing a true market economy, is being delayed."

Most of the Moscow media does agree on one point: a Yeltsin- era checks-and-balances system of various Moscow interests is running Russia while Putin zeros in on regional powers.

This means that the real battle for ministerial seats -- when Putin's plan will be finally revealed -- is still to come.