Ben Aris -
Ivanov's chances of succeeding Putin were raised by his appointment to head the agency overseeing military spending, but his more popular rival Medvedev remains favourite
TThe race to become Russia's third president after Vladimir Putin steps down in March 2007 is already over: the only problem is that Putin has yet to tell the rest of us whom he has chosen. In the meantime, analysts are left to read Kremlin tea leaves.
One of the two main contenders, Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov, got a boost in March when Putin gave him his own powerful fiefdom. Ivanov became a leading candidate for Russia's top job last year along with his Kremlin colleague Dmitry Medvedev, when both men were promoted to the newly created post of deputy prime minister from their jobs as deputy heads of the all-powerful presidential administration.
Ivanov was put in charge of the newly minted Military-Industrial Commission and its $25 billion procurement budget, about a fifth of the entire Russian budget.
Money is power in Russia, but Ivanov got more of the latter too - the head of the MIC answers to no one except the president and the job comes with the power to submit draft presidential decrees to Putin - which bypass the Duma, but have the power of law. This is a power that not even Prime Minister Fradkov has.
The appointment makes Fradkov look more like a lame duck than ever. No one expects the prime minister to survive in his post beyond the start of 2007, as he will almost certainly be replaced by Putin's anointed successor.
Fradkov has been fighting a rearguard action to protect his position with little success.
He squared off with Ivanov last year when the defence minister tried, and failed, to wrest the power to spend his budget from under Fradkov's supervision so Ivanov's new job is a major victory. Like Putin, Ivanov is a former KGB colonel, and remains one of the president's closest confidents. Yet he lacks charisma, although this is not necassarily a problem in Russian politics, where strong men are admired. By contrast, the urbane Medvedev is much more sellable and was given something to sell last year when he took over the $4 billion social spending campaign on dilapidated hospitals, increasing doctors' wages, buying an entire fleet of new ambulances and generally making the lives of people across the country visibily better. Medvedevs problem is the public is still not really sure what it is that he does in government, but whatever it is, his job also bypasses Fradkov.
Of course, this is Russia and nothing is certain. Last winter's attempt to reform the way social benefits are paid blew up in the Kremlin's face and sent everyone in power running for cover. Much depends on Medvedev's ability to carry out the reforms effectively. In the meantime, Fradkov remains a useful useful scapegoat should the programme go awry.
Ironically the man that would walk the elections without the need for the Kremlins big book of dirty tricks, Emergencies Situation Minister Sergey Shoigu, doesnt want the job. Looking at what it did to Yeltsin, who would?
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