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Friday, February 16, 2007

Putin positions ally to take over

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has promoted Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov to the post of First Deputy Prime Minister in what is widely seen as a move to position his close ally for a presidential run.

Mr Putin's decree appointing his former KGB colleague was published by the Kremlin yesterday, allowing him to begin serving alongside the Government's other First Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who has been widely tipped as Mr Ivanov's main rival in a presidential election scheduled for 2008.

At a government meeting earlier in the day, Mr Putin said he was "broadening" the responsibilities of Mr Ivanov, the country's first civilian Defence Minister, so that he would oversee not only Russia's military-industrial sector but also part of the civilian economy.

Mr Putin said he had appointed Anatoly Serdyukov, formerly head of the federal tax service, to replace Mr Ivanov as defence minister.

Mr Ivanov, a smooth-talking former agent in the KGB intelligence service and its post-Soviet successor the FSB, is a close friend of Mr Putin from his home town of St Petersburg.

While his fluent English and suave approach may help get his message across in the West, the fact he was expelled from Britain in a diplomatic spat in 1983 for alleged spying will provide ammunition for critics.

As Defence Minister, Mr Ivanov largely succeeded in breaking a Chechen rebellion still raging at his appointment in 2001, but the armed forces are still dogged by accusations of serious war crimes, brutalisation within the forces and corruption.

The promotion will free him of the baggage of the army's intractable problems which have been "more of a burden than an advantage" for Mr Ivanov's public profile, said analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, chairman of the National Strategic Institute.

A recent survey by the independent Levada polling centre showed that in a presidential election, Mr Ivanov would have the support of 23 per cent of those surveyed, against 38 per cent for Mr Medvedev.

Mr Ivanov has long been seen as a favourite to take over when Mr Putin steps down at the end of his second term, as required by the constitution, next year.

Although he has repeatedly played down his ambitions, analysts were unanimous in interpreting the reshuffle as part of the Kremlin's elaborate preparations to ensure the election brings a Putin loyalist to power.

Mr Putin's creation of two rivals meant he did not intend simply to name a favourite successor for next year, but was rather "putting forward candidates that the people will choose between," said Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov.

But Andrei Ryabov, editor of the World Economy and International Relations review, said the choice would hardly be democratic. "There will be competition ... but in a very narrow circle - a contest between the chosen ones," he said.

In appointing the 45-year-old Mr Serdyukov as defence minister, Mr Putin has again favoured a St Petersburg colleague.

A law graduate, Mr Serdyukov left a career in the furniture industry to join the tax service in 2000, the year Mr Putin became president, and became the service's head in 2004, developing financial credentials that Mr Putin said would help in dealing with the armed forces' multi-billion-dollar annual budget.

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