Putin shakes up Cabinet on eve of election, ousts foreign minister

Economic reforms likely to continue, president consolidating power

March 10, 2004|By David Holley and Maggie Farley | David Holley and Maggie Farley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin named his United Nations envoy as Russia's new foreign minister yesterday in a pre-election Cabinet reorganization that slashed the number of ministries but kept key market-oriented reformers in their posts.

U.N. Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov replaced Igor S. Ivanov, who was named head of Russia's Security Council, seen as a less influential position.

The reshuffle signals that economic reforms will probably accelerate, while foreign policy will still be run by Putin and implemented by a seasoned professional diplomat, analysts said.

"Putin is taking the reins in his own hands," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank. "He will be the person who will steer the country and he will be the one ultimately responsible for everything."

At the United Nations, Lavrov was known as a canny tactician, who, diplomats half-jest, gave instructions to Moscow instead of the other way around. Often seen with a smoldering cigarette, a strong espresso and a glass of scotch on the table at the same time, Lavrov was able to juggle the diplomatic tools of pressure, persuasion and petulance to get what Russia wanted.

During negotiations over a resolution that gave Iraq a "final chance" to prove it did not have weapons of mass destruction, Lavrov would parse the resolution, line by line, questioning the legality of each element, driving other diplomats on the Security Council to distraction.

Despite earlier speculation that economic posts might be put into the hands of officials more inclined toward state control, Finance Minister Alexei L. Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German O. Gref kept their jobs. The total number of ministers was slashed to 17 from 30, including recently appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

The retention of Kudrin and Gref, together with shifts raising the profile of some other reformers, was a reassuring signal to Western investors before Sunday's balloting, in which Putin is seen as nearly certain to win.

"If not the absolute dream team, this is still pretty nice," said Christopher Granville, a Moscow analyst with United Financial Group, a Western investment company.

"Lavrov is in our view the most able senior official in Russia's Foreign Ministry," Granville said. "He will impress."

The Cabinet was introduced by Putin and Fradkov in a televised meeting. Putin said that while the constitution requires that the Cabinet resign after Sunday's election, in this case that will be a "pure formality" and all members will be reappointed.

"It is this very team that will ultimately take over and carry on the cause of further strengthening our country and raising the living standards of our citizens," Putin said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a statement saying that he had "great professional respect" for Lavrov.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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