On February 24, three weeks before the March 14 Presidential elections, Vladimir Putin dramatically fired his Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, as well as his entire cabinet. All the world knows who the next Russian President will be, but the real game in Moscow today is: who will Mr. Putin appoint to be the next Prime Minister? Under the law, the President will nominate the Prime Minister within two weeks after the elections.
A PR Ploy?
Firing the Kasyanov cabinet was an attempt to resuscitate public interest in an otherwise boring presidential election in which Putin is a shoo-in -- with 80 percent of popular support -- and other candidates are threatening to quit the race.
However, sacking an adequate cabinet prior to victory in the presidential election showed that Putin, a lawyer by training, may understand the letter of the Constitution, but not its spirit. Reports of Putin's personal dislike of Kasyanov, the latter's ties to the industrial tycoons, or the President's desire to break ties with Yeltsin holdovers do not justify the rash move. The decorum of democracy -- the respect of the people's will -- is as important as popularity in the polls. In a democracy, a candidate does not appoint a new cabinet before the people have returned their verdict.
According to the 1993 Constitution, Russia is a mixed presidential-parliamentary republic. While the President is elected, the Prime Minister is appointed by the President and approved by the Duma, the lower house of the legislature. Similar to the French Premier, this is the second most important job in the country, though, unlike in France, the Prime Minister is not the leader of the majority coalition.
Officially, the Prime Minister -- or Chairman of the Government, as it has been known since czarist times -- is the second most important job in the country. However, in reality, a strong presidential chief of staff may be politically more powerful.
The Prime Minister runs everything but the "power" ministries; those, including Defense, Foreign Affairs, and police and security services report directly to the President. The Prime Minister also has authority over economic and social policy, which includes the ability to make key decisions in the dominant energy and natural resource sectors. Prime Ministers Victor Chernomyrdin (1993-1998) and Mikhail Kasyanov (1999-2004) have left particularly strong imprints on how the Russian economy is administered.
Beyond economic management, there is another important function the Prime Minister provides. He is the second-in-command and stand-in for the president. Like the American Vice President, the Prime Minister also has a key role as a constitutional and temporary successor for the President, if the latter is incapacitated.
If the President does not return to office after a temporary absence, the Prime Minister would become acting president for up to three months, after which new elections would take place. This also means control of the "football" - a device capable of launching Russia's mighty nuclear arsenal against her foes. The naming of the next Prime Minister will have internal, political, and economic repercussions, as well as consequences in national and global security.
So, you want to be the Prime Minister?
The key ingredient to getting the top job in Russia is gaining the trust of President Putin, who relies on former colleagues from his native St. Petersburg more than representatives of the so-called Old Moscow faction, or "Yeltsin family." Whereas Yeltsin ran through seven Prime Ministers during his two tumultuous presidential terms, Putin has persevered with one: Kasyanov. Whoever Putin appoints will be a key player in efforts to modernize the Russian economy and double the GDP, as Putin promised to do in this 2003 State of Russia address.
The current leading candidates for Prime Minister of Russia include:
Victor Khristenko, who until now was a Deputy Premier in charge of the oil and gas sector - the main currency earner for the Russian state. He also played a key role in Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) policy. A competent technocrat, Khristenko was well known in Washington as Russia's Governor at the International Monetary Fund and conducted debt negotiations with the Western. However, Khristenko is considered politically weak. He hails from the Urals, and has few St. Petersburg roots. He is not likely to be anointed as Putin's presidential successor in 2008.
But if the rumors are true, Sergey Ivanov is. The Defense Minister, trusted ally of Putin, and former KGB general has no significant economic experience. Lately, he has received much criticism for his performance as Defense Minister. Moreover, recent military maneuvers -- in which reportedly up to 50 percent of missiles malfunctioned at launch -- lack of success in Chechnya, and the slow pace of military reforms may still disqualify him from the position.
Dmitry Kozak, a lawyer, is a close friend of President Putin and First Deputy Chief of his Administration. He is a tough political operator and has an excellent track record of political management.
Igor Shuvalov, a lawyer, diplomat, and former Kasyanov Cabinet Chief of Staff, is another Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff. He is in charge of economic planning in the Kremlin.
Alexei Kudrin, Deputy Premier and a capable Finance Minister, is considered too close to the liberal economists' faction led by the chairman of energy monopoly RAO UES Anatoly Chubais, who was the architect of the unpopular privatizations of the 1990s. Kudrin, from St. Petersburg, is considered a poor manager and is politically weak. To quote Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister must have "big fists and loud voice."
What Washington Should Do?
When the new Russian Prime Minister is announced, the Bush Administration should establish good working relations with him, as it did with his predecessor. Specifically it should:
- Agree on a framework for U.S. companies' participation in the oil and gas projects;
- Emphasize importance of sovereignty of the New Independent States; and
- Express concerns with backsliding in the rule of law and selective application of justice.
In Moscow, the selection of a Prime Minister remains the best game in town. Putin's choice will indicate Russia's policy direction after the presidential elections.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute of International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.