A tough holiday for the ministers
Rumormongers were more than insistent that President Vladimir Putin would mark the second anniversary of his inauguration with a serious shakeup in the government. Some even went so far as to say that presidential administration head Alexander Voloshin would replace Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister.
Indeed, Kasyanov was first on everyone's list of potential victims in the upcoming reshuffle. But the unexpected happened: No one got the chop. It seems clear now that Kasyanov won't be dismissed after all, because Putin needs a weak minister without political will to play the part of whipping boy.
This spring, Putin has given the press many reasons to predict Kasyanov's political demise, as well as that of Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. Putin's most recent criticism of Kasyanov came just a few days ago, when he berated the government's economic policy at a government meeting. Kasyanov, Gref and Kudrin weren't at the meeting, having left Moscow on holiday. But Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, all seen as part of the "Petersburg" team hostile to Kasyanov, all attended.
In Soviet times, if someone was criticized while they were absent, it was a sure sign of imminent disgrace. And, as in the days of the Politburo, everyone held their breath, expecting thunderbolts from the Kremlin. Certainly, Putin reproached the absent Kasyanov for not providing any new figures promising economic growth.
This isn't the first time Putin has come up with a magical number for his ministers. Putin wants annual GDP growth of at least 8 percent, and is dissatisfied with ministers who can't promise anything better than 5 percent. Putin finished his tirade by saying he would sort things out with the absent ministers separately when they return.
Putin's criticism could be just an attempt to share with the government some of the public discontent with the aims set out in his annual federal address. Most observers called this year's address uninspired, down-to-earth and mercantile, lacking in specifics and positive directions for the future. Putin is halfway through his term, and the public can't be blamed for looking for tangible results and hope for genuine economic recovery. But, being honest, Putin wasn't about to make up results - hence the unambitious address. Now, Putin has no choice but to lay some of the blame on the government and increase the demands on Kasyanov and his team.
At the same time, Kasyanov suits Putin because having a popular prime minister, able to shift the balance of political power, isn't to Putin's advantage. Ivanov, Voloshin, Kudrin and even Presidential Representative in the Volga Federal District Sergei Kiriyenko are all unable to play the part of manageable prime minister as well as the imposing Kasyanov. What's more, the West knows Kasyanov, and, just recently, Western economic-rating agencies gave Kasyanov's government an unprecedented high rating. Most agencies now rate the Russian economy as positive rather than merely stable. While publicly criticizing Kasyanov, Putin took the information from the West as another argument in the current government's favor.
Putin, the Internet and bureaucratic battles
Rumors from the Kremlin suggest President Vladimir Putin's new Website is far more modern and substantial than the current one. The site is almost ready for launch, and Putin is said to be happy with its potential to assist in the fight to reform state bureaucracy. Rumor has it that most state agencies, from the Economic Development and Trade Ministry to the presidential administration, will be obliged to provide the site with regular updates of progress made on various reforms.
The list of priorities is long: judicial, tax and pension reform, as well as reform of the armed forces, health and education systems. The talk in the Kremlin corridors is that this will push all state agencies into the Kremlin's information embrace, which could make the presidential Website one of the first lines of attack against bureaucrats in the promised large-scale administrative reform.
Putin's Internet people are said to have all the latest technology and are working on making the site into a kind of 24-hour channel with news on various state ministries and agencies.
Serious measures are being taken by the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) to guard against hackers. FAPSI employees say they fear hackers could target the site. When indecent photos appeared on U.S. President George Bush's site in September 2001, it was said to be the work of Russian hackers. The people working on Putin's site will be particularly vigilant to make sure that nude photos of Anna Kournikova or Chechen separatist pamphlets don't make it onto the Kremlin site.
(Natalia Mironova is filling in for Ekaterina Larina, who is on maternity leave. E-mail Larina at firstname.lastname@example.org)