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With eye to re-election, Putin retools government


KRASNOYARSK, Russia - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin began yesterday revamping his government less than three weeks before his re-election bid, firing Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his Cabinet and pledging to appoint a team that will carry out sweeping economic and social reforms that the Kremlin has promised but failed to deliver.

Putin's prime minister for the past four years, Kasyanov has been criticized by Putin for not moving fast enough on Kremlin reforms. Kasyanov, considered a friend to business interests, also irked Putin by criticizing the jailing of billionaire oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company. That prosecution was widely seen in the West as Kremlin-orchestrated and motivated by politics.

But the timing of Putin's announcement surprised many analysts who had expected the Russian leader to hold off on changes until after the March 14 presidential election, when according to the Russian constitution the government must submit its resignation anyway.

Analysts said Putin's decision was designed to send a message to voters that he is serious about a wide array of reforms, including trimming bureaucracy and giving Russians a stronger social safety net.

"Putin wants Russian voters to see that he is putting the country on a new course and that he is setting the foundation for that work before the elections," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst with the Moscow-based Panorama think tank.

In an address to the nation, Putin said his decision was not a reflection on how he viewed Kasyanov's performance as prime minister: "It was dictated by my desire to once again delineate my position on the issue of what development course the country will take after March 14, 2004."

Putin appointed Viktor Khristenko, 46, as acting prime minister. Khristenko has been a deputy prime minister overseeing macroeconomic affairs.

Analysts regard him as a long shot as a permanent replacement for Kasyanov. More likely candidates include Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

Putin said a new Cabinet would be formed in about a week. Experts said many ministers are likely to remain, because Kasyanov was Putin's principal target.

Kasyanov, 46, has been prime minister since Putin's election to a first term in March 2000. He is a member of a Kremlin wing tied to former President Boris N. Yeltsin that lost influence under Putin as the siloviki, or security wing, has taken control.

Kasyanov was the last major holdover from the Yeltsin wing, which historically allied with Russia's business elite. Putin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, another Yeltsin-era figure who helped Putin gain power but also criticized the Yukos prosecution, resigned after Khodorkovsky's arrest last fall.

In recent months the prime minister had become a lightning rod for social ills that Russia has never been able to cure - everything from substandard housing and low wages to bare-bones pensions.

Like many prime ministers before him, Kasyanov endured low popularity. Last summer he was backed by only 34 percent of Russians, while Putin enjoyed support from 70 percent of the country.

Russians nicknamed Kasyanov "Misha 2 Percent," a jab that expressed a widespread belief that Kasyanov skimmed a share from government transactions with big business.

At times, Putin publicly expressed his dismay with Kasyanov. Last May he told the nation that the legislative majority that emerged from parliamentary elections in December should be allowed to endorse the makeup of the Cabinet. Many political observers interpreted the remark as a clear sign that Kasyanov's future was tenuous.

In June, he survived a no-confidence vote in the Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament, an effort put together by an unlikely alliance of Communists and Western-minded liberals. The only other no-confidence vote in the nation's post-Soviet history was taken in 1995, when an effort to oust Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, failed.

The decision to oust Kasyanov also reflected Putin's confidence as he heads into the last weeks of the presidential campaign, analysts said.

Putin's popularity ratings hover near 80 percent, and his nearest rivals garner 3 percent or less. He has chosen not to mount any kind of obvious campaign, instead relying on extensive, usually fawning, media coverage on state TV to portray him as a leader focused more on his job than on politicking.

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