September 25, 2007

RUSSIA: High Tension in the Government

Russian President Vladimir Putin finally shared his vision of the new government yesterday. None of the parties involved were surprised by what they heard, except for Kommersant special correspondent Andrey Kolesnikov.

Putin's meeting with the members of the government was exceptional in every way. No one was even sure that it would take place the day before yesterday. Twelve hours before, no one knew whether it would be in Sochi or in Moscow. Sox hours before, whether in the Kremlin or in Novo-Ogarevo. Three hours before, no one knew who would be taking part in it. Nor did they know two hours before. An hour and a half before the meeting was scheduled to start, there was one place with a name card at it in the hall of government headquarters where cabinet meetings usually take place. It said “V.A. Zubkov.”

When I say no one knew, I don't mean journalists. Many journalists thought they knew something. But that was only because they had no information at all and had turned to weak and farfetched rumors.

Officials in government headquarters and members of the Kremlin administration used their phones. They called, their colleagues, ministry underlings, ministers' drivers, and found out that none of the ministers had been warned about a meeting. There was a good idea why come of the ministers did not know. Minister of Economic Development and Trade German Gref, for example, spoke freely with his fellow ministers about the fact that he was leaving. Minister of Industry and Energy Viktor Khristenko's absence would be no surprise to anyone either.

But the ministers who did not have a cloud hanging over their heads were, nonetheless, equally in the dark. No one had even suggested that they stay at their ministries or in Moscow on that day. They were simply doing what seemed best to them under the strange and strained circumstances. They were sitting in their offices waiting and doing nothing.

About an hour before the meeting, they began to call the ministers in. Gref, Khristenko, Education Minister Andrey Fursenko, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev… It looked like they were calling in the old government, not the new one, even though yesterday and today everybody thought everything had been settled.

Suddenly no one knew anything again, not even how the ministers knew to appear. They must have been called from the Kremlin, where it was reported that head of the government Zubkov had informed head of state Putin of his proposed new government (for the third or fourth time in the last four days).

A few minutes later, Zubkov arrived. The journalists were called into the Awards Hall on the third floor. Twelve people were already seated. It was clearly the new government. For one thing, Gref wasn't there. He left his ministry, but didn't make it to the Awards Hall. Zurabov and Minister of Regional Development Vladimir Yakovlev were missing as well. (That is not to say that they were missed.)

But there were two young women there, who improved the general sight of the cabinet considerably. One of them was Elvira Nabiullina, who had worked with Gref. The other was Tatyana Golikova, who was sitting with her (former) boss Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin. The rest of the ministers looked as though they had really just received awards.

Putin, who had kept everybody on needles and pins all day, entered and continued to do the same. He told the audience that he had signed the law “On Labor Pensions,” which will raise all pensions on October 1. Then he thanked the members of the old government, not for the first time. “The work was successful on the whole,” he said. Previously, that had been his cue to himself to complain that the government had been losing momentum, and this time was no exception.

A committee on fishing was being created under the Agriculture Ministry and headed by Andrey Krainy. Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin will also be deputy prime minister. The functions of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade had been “specified,” in the downward direction, and Nabiullina appointed new minister. Former presidential representative in the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak was appointed minister of regional development. Golikova, a former deputy minister of finance and wife of Industry Minister Khristenko (who was reappointed after all), was appointed minister of health care and social development. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov were retained.

One thing remained unclear. What did they have to make such a big mystery out of it for?

Andrey Kolesniko

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