A close political ally and old KGB colleague of Vladimir Putin has been given the top Kremlin staff job, a move that some experts say is an effort by Mr. Putin to lock down the levers of supreme authority at a time when mass public protests threaten social instability.
Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB general who was defense minister for six years under Putin, was appointed chief of Kremlin staff Thursday by President Dmitry Medvedev, in a terse announcement published on Mr. Medvedev's official website.
Mr. Ivanov is considered to be one of the toughest, smartest and most experienced apparatchiks in Russian government, and his track record of loyalty to Putin is long and undisputed.
Experts say it's also significant that acting Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the Putin-era system of "managed democracy," was apparently passed over for the appointment.
Over 35,000 people have signed a Facebook pledge to attend a downtown Moscow rally on Saturday to protest against alleged vote rigging and political manipulation in the Dec. 4 Duma elections. Opposition leaders blame Surkov for orchestrating the fraud, as well as other restrictions in Russian politics that include refusing to register political parties and candidates that are too independent, channeling official resources and state media support behind the ruling United Russia party, and creating a network of pro-Kremlin pressure groups, such as the youth movement Nashi, to back Kremlin policies.
"It's important that Ivanov has been appointed at this time, because he is a strong and reliable figure who is 100 percent loyal to Putin," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business newspaper Kommersant.
"It's a storm warning. It's clear that Russian authorities are rattled by how rapidly this protest movement is growing, and they are not sure how to respond. But they want a strong hand in that important and sensitive job. It shows that Putin is in charge, calling the shots and stacking the Kremlin with his own people," Mr. Strokan says.
"But it's equally important to note that Surkov was not appointed. He is a figure that is particularly irritating to the opposition, who blame him for all sorts of shenanigans. It's possible that Putin may be trying to take the pressure off ahead of more street rallies by sidelining Surkov. … Basically, it illustrates that Russian authorities are trying to do something, but definitely want to hold on to all means of control."