Putin's chief of staff tenders resignation

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His authority already rocked by the so-called Yukos affair, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, suffered a further blow last night with the resignation of Aleksandr Voloshin, his chief of staff.

Mr Voloshin, 47, had headed Mr Putin's office since he became President almost four years ago. He was one of the few senior officials kept on by Mr Putin when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin, and his departure is seen as marking the true end of the Yeltsin era.

The decree confirming Mr Voloshin's resignation was disclosed by the Russian Interfax news agency late yesterday. It ended three days of damaging speculation in political circles, after the arrest last weekend of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Yukos oil company and one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs.

Mr Voloshin was seen as a highly competent administrator. Some believe he led a reformist group, which found itself increasingly at odds with a more conservative group of former security officers known as the "enforcers".

The favoured theory is that neither Mr Voloshin nor the President had been informed in advance of Mr Khodorkovsky's arrest and that Mr Voloshindisapproved of the move. Mr Putin has defended the action of the authorities.

It is still not at all clear whether Mr Voloshin volunteered his resignation, or whether he was asked to go - and exactly when, and why. Nor is it clear whether Mr Putin isstrengthened or weakened by Mr Voloshin's departure.

One view is that Mr Putin will be weakened by the loss of a competent and experienced right-hand man, as will the lobby for faster economic reform. Others arguethat Mr Putin will now be his own man, and that dispensing with Mr Voloshin can be seen as evidence of his political strength. Mr Putin's choice of successor - not yet announced - will offer the first clue.