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Putin names new government before elections

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Vladimir Putin named a new government Monday, tapping new economics and health ministers and retaining his foreign and defense ministers in an expected but largely cosmetic shuffle before parliamentary and presidential elections.

The new government’s naming comes just over a week after Viktor Zubkov, an obscure Cabinet official who had overseen money laundering investigation, became prime minister in a move that surprised most Kremlin experts and stoked speculation who would be Putin’s successor.

The changes were largely superficial and observers said major policy shifts of any sort were unlikely before parliamentary elections in December and presidential vote in March.

“In this crucial time it’s necessary not only to ensure stable work but also energetically promote the implementation of our strategic plans and to resolve the pressing everyday problems facing the citizens of Russia,” Putin said in televised comments.

He said economics minister German Gref was replaced with his first deputy, Elvira Nabiullina. Health minister Mikhail Zurabov was replaced by Finance Ministry official Tatiyana Golikova.

Both outgoing ministers are widely unpopular among leftist lawmakers and large sections of Russians — Gref for his pro-Western, free-market economic reforms; Zurabov for changes in how social benefits were paid out to the elderly, the disabled and veterans.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov retained his post and Putin rejected the resignation of Anatoly Serdyukov, Zubkov’s son-in-law who offered his resignation last week because of his close family ties with the new prime minister.

Analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio the new ministers both have a “technical, professional character,” which he said signaled an effort to fight corruption and strengthen financial controls over government policy — an effort underlined by Zubkov after his nomination by Putin.

No policy changes expected
Political analyst Alexander Golts said no real policy changes should be expected.

“All these changes have strictly a cosmetic character,” he said.

He said shuffle clearly was being made with the December parliamentary elections in mind, but it was hard to know what the Kremlin has in mind.

“In as much as we live in a completely closed political system, it’s very difficult to know how exactly to receive this information,” he said.

Speculation has been building about the plans for Putin, who is wildly popular among Russians and who is barred by the constitution from running for a second, consecutive term as president.

Contenders for the presidency
Before the surprise dissolution of the government of Mikhail Fradkov on Sept. 10, Kremlin observers had been watching closely for signs of who might be Putin's favored presidential candidate.

Most observers considered the government’s two first deputy prime ministers — former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and natural gas monopoly Gazprom chairman Dmitry Medvedev — to be the front-runners for prime minister and thus leading contenders for the presidency.

However, Putin tapped Zubkov, a Soviet-era state farm director and Communist Party official who has kept a low profile in six years heading Russia’s anti-money-laundering agency, to be the new prime minister.

That stamp of approval vaulted Zubkov to a prominent position in the race.

And in a noticeably populist move designed to appeal to Russia’s sizable population of pensioners, Putin read out the new Cabinet posts only after announcing that all pensions nationwide would be increased as of Oct. 1.