With an eye toward Western creditors and the March 26 presidential vote, Acting President Vladimir Putin reshuffled his Cabinet this week.
Analysts say Mr. Putin is putting a fresh face on a stale situation and trying to distance himself from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who resigned unexpectedly on New Year's Eve. Others say Putin is shoring up his already near guaranteed election. Some domestic media have begun to report embarrassing setbacks in the Russian military campaign in breakaway Chechnya, a major source of Putin's popularity.
"His only aim is to do something to win the presidential elections," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "After that we will see his true colors."
But Kremlin watchers say the Jan. 10 shakeup is largely window dressing and should not alter policy much. The sidelining of former senior Kremlin official Pavel Borodin - under investigation in Russia and Switzerland for alleged bribery - gives the appearance of a cleaner slate for voters tired of widespread corruption. And by promoting Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov - an English-speaking technocrat who has led Russia's debt negotiations with Western creditors - to first deputy prime minister, Putin seems to be indicating that tackling Russia's economic morass is a top priority.
For the most part, however, the same faces remain. And as Putin himself has said, the new lineup is only temporary - until the vote. "There is not a single new name added. I'm sure there will not be any serious changes in the government's work," said Boris Nemtsov, a former Kremlin insider who is a leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, a party sympathetic to Putin. He was quoted in Moscow's Sevodnya newspaper.
Various analysts believe Putin, a former KGB spy with no experience in government before Mr. Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in August, wants to present himself as a legitimate leader who could bring stability and restore prestige to Russia. He is heavily favored to win the ballot - but in Russia's mercurial politics, nothing is certain.
Political analyst Petrov predicts the continued influence of the Yeltsin clan, despite the ousting of Mr. Borodin as Kremlin property manager and the earlier dismissal of Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, who was an adviser to her father and is also the subject of corruption allegations.
But there are other members of the so-called "Family" - as the Yeltsin entourage is known - who can still play a powerful background role. Among these characters, who are highly influential without holding actual office, are financier Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais, the head of the state power company. "The Family is still lurking in the shadows," Petrov says.
As for Mr. Kasyanov, his enhanced status could be a sign that he will become prime minister should Putin be elected president. But while Kasyanov is appreciated for his knowledge of debt issues, he is remembered in Western financial circles as the man who gave foreign creditors the century's worst rescheduling deal. Many foreign investors were burned when the government froze the domestic debt market during the August 1998 financial crash. Kasyanov was in charge of negotiations on restructuring this debt, and proved unsympathetic to the losses of Western bankers.
Russia has recovered substantially since then, largely thanks to a sharp increase in the price of its vital export - oil. But some difficult decisions will have to be taken in the near future. The ruble plunged to a new record low against the dollar this week, and the Russian Central Bank has warned that it will be tough to keep the currency stable while it uses hard currency reserves to make payments on the foreign debt.
Ultimately, however, Putin's success at the polls may depend not on who is in his government, but how the military fares against Muslim separatists in Chechnya. Over the weekend, Chechen fighters surprised Russian forces in the towns of Shali, Argun, and Gudermes before pulling back Jan. 11. Chechen commander Momadi Saidayev told the Interfax news agency the rebels wanted to show that "plans to solve the Chechen problem by military means are not workable."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society