|Putin heads a meeting in the Government House in Moscow on Monday [AFP]|
On Monday, Russian television footage showed the meeting where the country’s leaders proclaimed a new cabinet line-up. Vladimir Putin, the incoming prime minister, was shown seated on the same side of a table that he always occupied as president, while Dmitry Medvedev, technically his new boss, occupied the side traditionally kept for subordinates.
While the cabinet contains few surprises, it certainly illustrates Putin’s continued hold on power.
Key ministers who have performed well as close Putin loyalists retain their posts: Sergey Lavrov, the most visible face of Russia’s foreign policy; Alexei Kudrin, who keeps hold of finance; and Anatoly Serdyukov, the defence minister.
Viktor Zubkov, a former prime minister and a longtime friend of Putin, remains as deputy prime minister and will likely take up the post of chairman of Gazprom next month.
These appointments illustrate Putin’s influence in key areas. Only Sergei Ivanov takes a hit. The hawkish former first deputy prime minister becomes merely a deputy prime minister, a sign perhaps of a more moderate cabinet (or it could be something else entirely).
Also, Putin has brought key behind-the-scenes figures across from the Kremlin and into the government. The most significant, Igor Sechin, was deputy chief of staff and heads oil giant Rosneft. He is said to be a hardliner and head of the Kremlin old guard, or siloviki, a shadowy but very powerful group often believed to be the real power behind the throne.
Sechin’s appointment as deputy prime minister suggests Putin retains the support of the siloviki. Sergei Sobyanin rose to a position of great influence as Putin’s Kremlin chief-of-staff, and moves to the same position in the White House.
The predictable appointment of close Putin allies to top posts contrasts with the appointment of only one Medvedev loyalist: Justice minister Alexander Konovalov, who studied law with Medvedev in St Petersburg.
In addition, the announcement of Medvedev’s own chief-of-staff in the Kremlin is interesting. Sergei Naryshkin was formerly a deputy prime minister and close Putin ally. Analysts say his move to the Kremlin is intended to keep an eye on Medvedev’s administration.
And Medvedev has appointed former FSB head Nikolai Patrushev to the powerful post of head of the Security Council. Patrushev is another clear pro-Putin figure.
All about continuity
What all this illustrates is the laying down of a team clearly on message with Putin and the nature of this power transition.
It is all about “continuity” and “stability”, but Putin retains his hefty power base and has shifted key figures into strategic positions. Medvedev by contrast is left with a Kremlin devoid of depth and experience, and deprived of a power structure of his own.
All part of the plan which, for the time being, Medvedev has signed up for.
The worry is that it also creates the basis for deep political instability in the future, as both men and their teams work to reinforce lines of authority and structures of power.