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Putin names new Russian FM
Updated: 2004-03-10 09:27

Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed a new foreign minister but kept on key economic liberals as he unveiled a slimmed-down cabinet just days before his expected re-election.

Putin signed a decree appointing UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov, a 53-year-old fluent English and French speaker, to replace long-serving foreign minister Igor Ivanov, who was instead named Security Council chief.

The Russian leader, who two weeks ago fired his government and appointed little-known former tax police chief Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister, kept reformers Alexei Kudrin and German Gref in their positions of finance and economy ministers.

In the other key change, he appointed as the sole deputy prime minister -- previously there were four -- Alexander Zhukov, a respected economist with strong reformist credentials from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

"This team, after the presidential elections, will quickly and decisively assume the task of strengthening our country and improving our citizens' standard of living," Putin told the new ministers in televised comments.

"I ask you today to step up activity under the leadership of the prime minister, to conclude the reorganization of the ministries and move rapidly to realising the plans we have unveiled," he added.

The Russian leader, who has made economic reforms one of the central planks of government policy, won plaudits from some analysts for his move, which sent share prices rallying by 2.3 percent.

"The liberal part of the government has been preserved as much as possible. This sends a positive signal," said Yury Korgunyuk of the INDEM political research institute.

"At first glance it looks a significant improvement. Slimmer and slicker than its previous incarnation, the new government is, first and foremost, a souped up machine for implementing Kremlin policy," said Roland Nash, chief economist at the Renaissance Capital brokerage.

But other commentators also said the new government reflected Putin's control over the levers of power with the main posts divided between his allies from the "siloviki" -- hawkish secret service and military figures -- and loyal free-market reformers.

The hardline defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, retained his post as did interior minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, formerly from the FSB intelligence agency.

A close Putin aide who has spearheaded judicial reform as deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Dmitry Kozak, was named government chief of staff.

"It's basically the same cabinet, all the key figures, on the economic side and on the security side, have remained," noted independent political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky.

"This has further strengthened Putin's power," he said.

Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political Technologies said Kozak would ensure a tight presidential leash over the government.

"Kozak is a strong figure who has been put at the head of the government apparatus. He is a political commissar of Putin," he said.

Putin said the government has been slimmed down to 17 ministerial posts from 30, for example with the atomic energy ministry folded into the industry and energy ministry.

The Russian leader has emerged with far stronger powers after December parliamentary elections handed a crushing victory to pro-Kremlin forces and the appointment of a loyal government purged of elements from the time of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian parliament on Friday approved Putin's surprise choice of prime minister, Fradkov, seen as a technocratic figure who will unquestioningly carry out the president's policies.

Putin is set to easily clinch a second term in Sunday's presidential election, with none of his five challengers able to muster more than a few percent of the vote.

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