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Putin Looks West for Premier

His choice of a little- known EU envoy skirts the camps of reformists and ex-KGB officials and is likely to reassure international partners.

March 02, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In a move widely seen as a gesture to the West, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday nominated European Union representative Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister.

The appointment, expected to win easy confirmation by the parliament this week, marked Putin's attempt to signal his course for the coming four years before the March 14 presidential election. Analysts noted that this path would probably allow Putin to maintain tight personal control over the government while pursuing economic reform, cracking down on corruption and bettering relations with Europe.

The designation of Fradkov, a little-known former tax police chief and trade minister, eased fears that Putin, a former KGB colonel, would hand the premiership to the resurgent military and security agencies. But neither did the president offer the reins of government to the most progressive economic reformers in the old Cabinet.

The most likely outcome is a middle-of-the-road government that would reassure critics in the West that Russia had not abandoned economic and democratic reform, analysts said.

Russia's financial markets, after an initial drop, swerved upward by the end of the day, and investment analysts were optimistic. Christopher Granville of United Financial Group said Fradkov's appointment "reflects Putin's primary focus on the job to be done -- of carrying through [his] ambitious program of supply-side policies."

Fradkov's background as a trade minister and EU representative could also help Russia "resolve a whole number of issues which have accumulated in our relations with the European Union," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank.

"Putin ... sees his mission primarily in achieving the integration of Russia into Europe in a wide sense of the word," he added. "For Putin, it is of exclusive importance."

Fradkov, 53, has been Russia's envoy to the European Union in Brussels for the past year. He could help head off increasing friction with Europe over such issues as the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, Russian troops in Georgia and Moldova, and Russia's failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, as it had promised.

This month, European foreign ministers threatened Russia with economic sanctions if it did not automatically extend a 1997 agreement on partnership and cooperation with Europe to 10 countries slated to enter the union on May 1. They include the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, whose membership in the EU could cost Moscow $150 million to $300 million a year in trade tariffs, by Russian estimates.

"The big goal is not just the integration of Russia into Europe, but the integration of the Russian economy into the global economy," Markov said.

Putin, whose approval rating is close to 80%, is expected to easily win election to a second four-year term, and many have seen his dismissal last week of Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov and the Cabinet as an attempt to revive the moribund campaign and avoid an embarrassingly low voter turnout.

Putin said he meant to clearly signal to voters the course of his administration over the next four years. In choosing a nominee, he said, he was seeking "a highly professional, orderly person with good experience in various branches of state activity."

He said Fradkov "has good experience fighting corruption" and, in Brussels, "showed himself as a good, strong administrator and a decent person."

Many had expected the president to anoint either Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov -- a decision that would have greatly strengthened the ex-KGB officials and military generals whose influence has been pervasive in Putin's Kremlin -- or Finance Minister Alexei L. Kudrin, the architect of many of Russia's Western-oriented market reforms.

But by shunning both high-profile ministers and selecting a little-known bureaucrat, Putin established a balance between the often-contradictory camps and guaranteed that he would maintain close control over the government, analysts said.

"In all key positions, Putin has placed people who won't make a step without his consent," Sergei Glazyev, a leftist economist who is one of six candidates challenging Putin in this month's election, said of the appointment.

Irina Khakamada, running on a liberal, pro-business platform, called the appointment an attempt to mend fences with the West, especially in view of Fradkov's background in trade issues.

"At least in Europe, they know Fradkov quite well.... They know what to expect of Fradkov, how to talk to him. For the West, he is an understandable figure," said Mikhail G. Delyagin, head of the Institute for Globalization Problems, a think tank in Moscow. "It doesn't mean that he is a pro-Western politician. The message to the West is this: 'We appoint someone you know, we are making a step forward, but he is our man, and he will be acting in our interests, and you will have to live with that.' "

As former head of the tax police, Fradkov could also be useful to Putin in his long-stalled program to implement administrative reforms to counter the pervasive bureaucratic corruption that has stymied economic growth and new investment. Bribes have been estimated at 4% of the country's gross domestic product.

Fradkov also could be instrumental in the president's plan to extract greater tax payments from domestic natural resources industries.

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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