Russian President Vladimir Putin abruptly fired his government Tuesday, stunning political observers and introducing an intriguing note to an otherwise dull presidential election campaign.
Some suggest the move may have been directed against Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an appointee of former President Boris Yeltsin who has frequently clashed with Mr. Putin over Kremlin policy toward big business, including last year's arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
But political experts wonder: why now? Putin is expected to win reelection handily in voting slated for March 14, and a change of government after that would only seem natural.
"This is a very strange and sudden development," mused Igor Bunin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There are no immediate explanations for it."
Under the constitution, the president can fire his cabinet at any time, without giving reasons. But if he dismisses the prime minister, the entire government must resign. In a terse, live TV broadcast announcing the move, Putin said his decision was "dictated by a wish once again to set down a position on how policy will develop after March 14."
Some analysts say a lack of public interest in the election campaign may have prompted the Kremlin to try to inject some excitement. The only apparent threat to Putin's reelection prospects is the danger that less than 50 percent of voters might turn out, which would invalidate the polls under Russian law. "Firing the government is just a PR move to attract people to vote on the eve of elections, just a cynical manipulation of power," charged Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov.
Some experts argue that some inner-Kremlin crisis, as yet unseen by the public, might explain Putin's sudden appearance on afternoon TV to sack his entire government.
"Putin said he did it to make the composition and role of government clearer ahead the elections, but this is not convincing," says Georgy Satarov, head of the independent INDEM think tank and a former Kremlin official under Mr. Yeltsin. "It would have made more sense if he'd offered some fresh names."
Putin appointed deputy prime minister Viktor Khristenko to act in Kasyanov's place, but few experts expect this to be his final choice. "We know there are lobbying groups in the Kremlin who've been demanding Kasyanov's resignation for a long time now," says Mr. Bunin. "Maybe Putin decided to show who's master in this house, and that he doesn't need the 'family' (former President Yeltsin's inner circle) anymore. "I don't know what this is about, but I doubt it has anything to do with the elections. They may as well have already happened."
Mr. Kasyanov, a liberal considered close to Russia's 1990s-era business tycoons - known as "oligarchs" - was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin and reconfirmed by Putin four years ago. After Mr. Khodorkovsky's arrest in October, Kasyanov took the unprecedented step of publicly protesting the Kremlin's actions and warning of serious economic fallout if foreign investors turned away from Russia as a result.
Khodorkovsky remains in prison while his Yukos petroleum empire is being gradually dismembered by prosecutors. After his arrest, Putin fired Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin - a champion of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs - leaving Kasyanov as virtually the last Yeltsin "family" member in the Kremlin.
In his later years as president, Mr. Yeltsin repeatedly fired his prime ministers, wreaking havoc in government and convincing much of Russia's political establishment that the ailing Kremlin leader had lost his grip on power. That history may have prompted Putin to keep Kasyanov until now, despite the deepening disagreements with his Yeltsin-era prime minister.
Earlier on Tuesday, independent liberal candidate Irina Khakamada - one of Putin's six challengers - threatened to drop out of the race, saying the incumbent's refusal to debate and massive use of state TV and other "administrative resources" had made public voting irrelevant. "The presidential election looks increasingly lawless and false," said Ms. Khakamada. "The competition of ideas and alternatives is becoming impossible."
Should Khakamada quit, "the whole election will look a bit of a farce," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for International and Political Studies in Moscow. "It already is very much a one-horse race, but if there are not even any theoretical alternatives, then what is the point of elections at all?"
Mr. Kharitonov and Khakamada were rebuffed this week by the Central Electoral Commission after they complained of preferential coverage of Putin on Russia's three state-controlled TV networks. The commission ruled the TV stations were only "doing their job" in covering the head of state.