Russia’s Surprisingly Liberal New Cabinet

Vladimir Putin may have reclaimed the presidency, but his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev is winning the appointments game. Are liberal reforms finally possible?


Russia’s recently returned President Vladimir Putin generally likes to surprise, but the reports leading up to this week’s cabinet appointments were uncannily accurate. As expected, three-quarters of the ministers are new — 20 out of 28 — and the cabinet will be dominated by middle-aged liberal technocrats with high qualifications.

The old cabinet was stacked with ministers considered highly corrupt, including former KGB officers and Putin cronies from his days in the St. Petersburg city government. With a couple of exceptions, they are all gone. Despite some suggestions that the new cabinet represents Putin’s attempt to solidify his control over the new government, the group is in fact dominated by liberal technocrats.

The big question for observers, of course, is whether this cabinet will be Putin’s or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s. Surprisingly, given his diminished standing, this looks almost entirely like a Medvedev cabinet. Almost all of Medvedev’s liberal economic team is still in place, including First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, his aide Arkady Dvorkovich, who is now Deputy Prime Minister, and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. They have worked hard for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and balanced budgets. Dvorkovich, Medvedev’s closest confidant, was the real litmus test for Medvedev’s sway, and he did become deputy prime minister. There can be no doubt about it: This is Medvedev’s cabinet.

Not a single one of the old KGB officers that made up the core of Putin’s most trusted advisors last time around are in the government. Most notably, Putin’s longtime right-hand man, former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, is gone. Another odious old KGB hand, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, has been dropped. (No minister has been more disliked than Nurgaliev, who is blamed for the lawlessness and corruption of the Russian police. He was once thought to be untouchable.) Additionally, the ranks of business oligarchs in the cabinet have been thinned out, with only Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin, who made his fortune as chairman of Norilsk Nickel, left in power. (One billionaire with liberal connections, Mikhail Abdyzov, has entered the government in the odd new job of minister of relations with the Open Government.)

Another remarkable change is that half a dozen heavyweight ministers with a reputation for serious corruption have been sacked. This could indicate that, for the first time since the 1990s, a reputation for corruption is considered a strike against a prospective minister. It’s not just the KGB characters, who have departed, but also Putin’s old St. Petersburg cronies, including Education Minister Andrei Fursenko, who was considered particularly incompetent by Russia’s education establishment. A quick glance reveals only two St. Petersburg loyalists in the new government: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, a competent lawyer, and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who is highly controversial because he has carried out far-reaching military reforms against the will of the general staff.

The vast majority of the cabinet members are technocrats who have spent most of their careers in the federal administration in Moscow, although some of them of them have substantial academic or regional experience. No less than six ministers were previously deputy ministers, and their promotions seem to have been the result of qualifications rather than political connections.

Take, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets. A 50-year-old former academic, she has led practical social work at two major industrial companies for the past decade. A year ago, she was appointed deputy mayor of Moscow City, where she tried to implement progressive social reforms. Now, she will get the opportunity to do so in the country as a whole, rendering education and health care more efficient and effective.

The new government also contains a few political heavy-hitters. Most worrying is Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, until recently the Russian ambassador to NATO, who is the foremost Russian nationalist firebrand. New Agricultural Minister Nikolai Fyodorov was a minister in the early 1990s, and he has changed political color many times. Most recently, he has been a prominent Putin loyalist. Minister of Far East Development Viktor Ishayev is an old-style regional heavyweight who was governor of Khabarovsk for 18 years. Longtime Kremlin spin doctor Vladislav Surkov — now deputy prime minister — was the primary author of Putin’s "sovereign democracy" governing philosophy of how to gradually expand repression, but is now considered a Medvedev ally. These four politicians represent different directions, and their inclusion in this otherwise almost completely technocratic government is odd. (As expected, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has remained in his post. He represents the rather old-fashioned mainstream of the Russian foreign affairs establishment.)

In short, this is a highly competent, technocratic council of ministers seemingly chosen by Medvedev rather than Putin. If it is only allowed to do so, this government could carry out the social and economic reforms that Russia so badly needs. This cabinet suggests a much greater and more positive political change than one could have hoped for.

Which is not to say that it’s good enough; none of the new opposition forces has been included. But this is the first time Putin has allowed his KGB and St. Petersburg cronies and prominent corrupt ministers to be ousted. This suggests that Medvedev will have more influence in the new government than generally expected and that positive evolutionary change in Russia just might be possible.

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