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Putin's hardliners keep places in new cabinet

Vladimir Putin, in his new role as Russia's Prime Minister, announced a new cabinet of ministers yesterday that appears to bear out predictions that he will remain the real centre of power in the country.

Most of the key ministers who served under Mr Putin when he was President have retained their posts, while powerful allies have moved with their old boss from the Kremlin to the White House, seat of the Russian government.

There was comfort for Western investors, who will be pleased that Alexei Kudrin, who was one of the few liberals in Mr Putin's government, retains his position as Finance Minister and a deputy prime minister.

But elsewhere, old Putin associates play a strong role in this government as in the last. Sergei Lavrov remains as Foreign Minister, and the hawkish Sergei Ivanov, who was thought to be in competition with Dmitry Medvedev for the presidency last year, remains a deputy prime minister.

Igor Sechin, regarded as one of the most powerful people in Russia and leader of the informal Kremlin siloviki clan of hardliners with links to the security services, moves from the presidential administration to become a deputy prime minister. Sergei Sobyanin, former head of the presidential administration, becomes Mr Putin's chief of staff and a deputy prime minister.

The number of deputy prime ministers was raised from five to seven, which analysts say will relieve Mr Putin of much of the mundane bureaucracy that comes with the prime minister's job and allow him to focus on strategy.

Viktor Zubkov, the former collective farm boss who preceded Mr Putin as prime minister, becomes one of two "first" deputy prime ministers, while the other will be Igor Shuvalov, a smooth-talking English speaker who was formerly Mr Putin's economic adviser.

One of the biggest changes was in the FSB security services, which will be led by Alexander Bortnikov, a career FSB official who previously led the former KGB in Mr Putin's home town of St Petersburg and ran the agency's fight against economic crimes. He has been implicated by Russia's The New Times, among others, of being linked to a scheme to launder billions of dollars through a network of banks. Mr Bortnikov has never commented on the allegations.

Viktor Cherkesov, who led the powerful anti-drugs agency within the security services, was moved away from his post to run a new weapons agency in yesterday's reshuffle. He was best known for an article he wrote in the Russian press last year, which said that the security services were descending into a war of "all against all". He said the FSB was divided between genuine "warriors" for the cause, and "traders" who simply tried to get rich.

"The appointments suggest that the warriors have lost and the traders have won," commented Yevgenia Albats, deputy editor of The New Times.

Since Mr Medvedev became President last Wednesday, there has been little sign that Mr Putin is prepared to give up his position as the most powerful and visible politician in the country. Since handing over the presidency, Mr Putin has been mentioned more than twice as many times as his successor by Russian media.

Yesterday, he took centre stage again. Officially, he presented his suggestions to President Medvedev for consideration but there seemed little consultation and it was Mr Putin who announced the new government to the media. When pictures were broadcast of the meeting, Mr Putin was sitting on the left, the same place he sat when he received guests as president. Mr Medvedev was on the right, where he used to sit as Mr Putin's subordinate.

"Never before has a prime minister so confidently and calmly entered the territory that is constitutionally reserved for the president," said a political analyst, Dmitry Oreshkin.


From Belfast Telegraph