Putin lays foundation for succession as he promotes former KGB defence minister

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The Independent Online

Russian President Vladimir Putin has carried out a radical government reshuffle a year before he is due to step down in a surprise move aimed at safeguarding his political legacy.

Judging by Mr Putin's appointments, post-Putin Russia will look very much like it does today and be run by a man with a similar background and worldview. The reshuffle, that took Russia's political élite by surprise, promoted Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, a man whose CV looks remarkably similar to Mr Putin's, to the influential position of First Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Ivanov, a former KGB spy, is well travelled and an able linguist, and, like his mentor, a strong proponent of a confident, resurgent Russia. As Defence Minister he oversaw a huge increase in military spending and made a name for himself by criticising Nato's eastwards expansion. More recently, he bitterly opposed American plans to build parts of its missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Like Mr Putin, his CV contains "grey areas" and it is unclear in which countries he served when working for the KGB.

Mr Ivanov's elevation was universally interpreted in the way that Mr Putin obviously intended: as the unofficial start of Russia's presidential election campaign. The world's largest country faces parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot next March.

The question on everyone's lips is who will be the next Mr Putin? The Russian leader enjoys popular support of around 80 per cent and is such a strong figure that many Russians find it hard to imagine anyone else in the Kremlin.

The reshuffle that pushed Mr Ivanov, 54, into the limelight was widely seen as a stage-managed move designed to give Russians a chance to get used to Mr Putin's possible successors and digest the idea that he is really stepping down. Under the Russian constitution, Mr Putin, who has been in power since 1999, is not allowed to serve a third consecutive term. Loyalists have practically begged him to change the constitution to allow him to do just that but he has been adamant that this is not something he is prepared to do.

However, he has made it clear that whoever succeeds him will, in effect, be a chip off the old block and will be charged with safeguarding the internal stability and economic success that he has engendered.

"It looks like Putin is putting in action his own solution to the 2008 [election] problem," wrote the pro-government daily newspaper Izvestia. "He has said there will be no single hand-picked successor and that Russians will have to choose between several equal candidates."

Mr Ivanov's promotion put him on par with the only other publicly identified contender for the presidency, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Mr Medvedev, 41, is often described as "Putin-lite" representing more of the same but in a softer, more liberal package compared to Mr Ivanov's more nationalist hawkish rhetoric. He does not have the same silovik (security services) background as Mr Ivanov and he has said that he sees Russia as being part of the European community sharing its democratic values.

Izvestia argued that the reshuffle set the stage for the two men to battle it out for the Kremlin over the next year from positions of equal strength. Both come from Mr Putin's native city of St Petersburg, have worked closely with him before he became president, and are part of the ruling élite.

Another key part of Mr Putin's political legacy is likely to be Chechnya and the reshuffle also appeared to be an attempt to protect his own controversial vision of the war-torn republic.

In a move that alarmed human rights activists, he promoted Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russian-backed prime minsiter of Chechnya, to become the republic's acting president. A former rebel who fought against the Russians, forces loyal to Mr Kadyrov are accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Human rights group said Mr Putin would live to regret his choice.

"By raising the profile and power of Kadyrov the long view of Chechnya is pretty bleak," said Allison Gill, head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office.