President Vladimir Putin has begun sweeping Boris Yeltsin-era relics from his government in what experts say is a carefully planned campaign to consolidate the supreme power he theoretically won in elections a year ago.
It is often said that power in Russia flows from the bureaucracy, not the people. Each new leader must painstakingly enforce his personal authority by placing loyalists in all the top jobs, a process that can take years, before accumulating enough real power enact his political program.
"Putin has spent a year studying the apparatus and lining up his candidates," says Alexei Zudin, deputy director of the Center for Political Techniques, an independent Moscow think tank. "This is just the beginning. He will be removing the old Yeltsin appointees, bite by bite, for some time to come."
Not by accident, Wednesday's cabinet purge focused on the security forces, vaulting Putin cronies into control of the defense and interior ministries - which between them bear responsibility for the faltering war in Chechnya. After 18 months of fighting, Russian troops have managed to occupy but not pacify the breakaway republic.
A string of car bombings in Russian towns near the Chechen border last weekend killed 25 people and demonstrated that the separatist rebellion may be rapidly mutating into a classic terrorist struggle, recognizing no territorial or social limits.
"The Chechen war has shown the urgent need for military reform," says Franz Sheregi, director of the independent Center for Social Forecasting in Moscow. "To begin this process, Putin needed to appoint a defense minister who is unconnected with the military hierarchy and completely loyal to the Kremlin."
Mr. Yeltsin's defense minister, the career officer Igor Sergeyev, was replaced by Sergei Ivanov, an old friend of Mr. Putin's and an 18-year veteran of the Soviet KGB's external intelligence service. A fluent English speaker and former head of the Kremlin's security council, Mr. Ivanov is regarded as a tough-minded security hawk who won't flinch from the herculean task of modernizing Russia's bankrupt, demoralized, and incompetent military.
A year of bureaucratic infighting has stalled plans to slash the armed forces from 1.2 million to 850,000, restructure them in favor of combat units, and gradually phase out the highly unpopular conscription system.
"Basically, a lot of generals have to be fired," says Irina Kobrynskaya, an analyst with the independent National Project Institute in Moscow. "Sergeyev was part of the military old-boy network, and couldn't do it. Ivanov is a civilian - or rather, he's KGB - but he's from outside. He can make the hard decisions."
The Kremlin also appointed Russia's first-ever female deputy defense minister, though probably not with any idea of striking a blow for downtrodden Russian women. Most analysts believe Lyubov Kudelina, former deputy finance minister with a background in law enforcement, has been enlisted to crack down on the corruption that is said to be rife in upper military echelons.
Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, rumored to be a protege of exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, was replaced by Boris Gryzlov, head of the pro-Kremlin Unity party's parliamentary caucus. In that job, Mr. Gryzlov has shown a readiness to reverse his own positions to suit Putin.
Mr. Rushailo was "promoted" to head the security council, an advisory body whose authority depends on the president's favor.
"Probably Rushailo will go out with the next round of sackings," says Mr. Zudin. "The fact that he is being given another position shows that Putin is doing this systematically, taking his time and acting cautiously."
In another key change, Nuclear Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov was sacked - and not offered any consolation job. His post was given to a professional scientist, Alexander Rumyantsev. Earlier this month, in a move that may have been approved by the Kremlin, Mr. Adamov was accused of corruption, nepotism, and illegal export of atomic technologies in a report issued by the Duma, the lower house of parliament. Further dramatic power shuffles which will "attract public attention" are in the wind, Putin said in a national address Wednesday.
Looking ahead, experts say Putin is likely to expand his personal beachhead in the state bureaucracy through strategic appointments of former colleagues and political allies to top posts. And that probably means many more veterans of the KGB and its post-Soviet successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), will be planted in high offices.
"Power is passing to the FSB because it is the only viable political force in Russia today, and the only place where serious professional administrators can be found," says Mr. Sheregi. "Putin knows that a major impulse will be needed to implement his political goals, and for that he needs capable, loyal, and determined people.
"It carries the risk of increasing authoritarianism, but it also feels like a fresh wind after a decade of stagnation under Yeltsin," Sheregi adds.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor