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Putin Selects a New Foreign Minister

Russia's Cabinet is shuffled, but reformers remain in place in a reassuring signal to Western investors ahead of Sunday's balloting.

March 10, 2004|David Holley and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin named his United Nations envoy as Russia's new foreign minister Tuesday in a preelection Cabinet reorganization that slashed the number of ministries but kept key market-oriented reformers in their posts.

U.N. Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov replaced Igor S. Ivanov, who was named head of Russia's Security Council, seen as a less influential position.

The reshuffle signals that economic reforms will probably accelerate, while Russia's foreign policy will still be run by Putin and implemented by a seasoned professional diplomat, analysts said.

"Putin is taking the reins in his own hands," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank. "He will be the person who will steer the country, and he will be the one ultimately responsible for everything."

At the United Nations, Lavrov was known as a canny tactician, who, diplomats half-jest, gave instructions to Moscow instead of the other way around. Often seen with a smoldering cigarette, a strong espresso and a glass of Scotch on the table at the same time, Lavrov was able to juggle the diplomatic tools of pressure, persuasion and petulance to get what Russia wanted.

During negotiations over a resolution that gave Iraq a "final chance" to prove it did not have weapons of mass destruction, Lavrov would parse the resolution, line by line, questioning the legality of each element, driving other diplomats on the Security Council crazy.

Despite speculation that economic posts might be put into the hands of officials more inclined toward state control, Finance Minister Alexei L. Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German O. Gref kept their jobs. The total number of ministers was slashed to 17 from 30. The recently appointed prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, also kept his post.

The retention of Kudrin and Gref, together with shifts raising the profile of some other reformers, was a reassuring signal to Western investors before Sunday's balloting in which Putin is seen as nearly certain to win reelection.

"If not the absolute dream team, this is still pretty nice," said Christopher Granville, a Moscow analyst with United Financial Group, a Western investment firm.

"Lavrov is in our view the most able senior official in Russia's Foreign Ministry," Granville said. "He will impress."

The Cabinet was introduced by Putin and Fradkov in a televised meeting. Putin said that although the constitution requires that the Cabinet resign after Sunday's election, in this case that will be a "pure formality" and all members will be reappointed.

"It is this very team that will ultimately take over and carry on the cause of further strengthening our country and raising the living standards of our citizens," Putin said.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a statement saying he had "great professional respect" for Lavrov.

"Throughout the years they have known each other, the secretary-general has also learned to appreciate both his wisdom and his wit and considers him a friend," the statement said.

Not afraid of playing hardball, Lavrov threatened a veto to block U.N. military action in Kosovo in 1999 despite intense Security Council pressure, causing the U.S. and Britain to organize a "coalition of the willing," led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to skirt the United Nations.

Lavrov led protests against the new U.N. policy of banning smoking in the headquarters building. After the ashtrays were removed from the building, he was often seen striding the corridors carrying a lighted Parliament in one hand and a cut-glass ashtray in the other.

He was also caught up in a long-running dispute over unpaid parking tickets in New York City. Russia used to top the list of scofflaws, but it ultimately paid the outstanding fines in a compromise that also created designated parking spaces for each mission. But New York police continued to taunt the Russians by parking squad cars in their allotted spots. Lavrov turned it into a diplomatic incident, protesting formally to the State Department.

"The newly appointed Cabinet will largely carry out the same course as the previous Cabinet that was in power during Vladimir Putin's first presidential term," said Sergei Markov, a prominent pro-Kremlin political analyst. "There is no longer a need to worry that economic reforms will be wrapped up in Russia. They can only be sped up."

Holley reported from Moscow and Farley from the United Nations. Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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