After an unprecedented two-week delay following the inauguration, Vladimir Putin has announced the composition of Russia’s new government. The appointments brought few surprises. Sergei Lavrov, the veteran of Putin’s “don’t-meddle-in-our-affairs” diplomacy, keeps his job as foreign minister. Former furniture salesman Anatoly Serdyukov stays on as minister of defense. Nationalist firebrand Dmitri Rogozin, who recently wrote that Putin’s defeat, desired by “Madame Albright who wants to rule the riches of Siberia,” will mean “the loss of independence for our country,” continues as deputy premier. Igor Shuvalov, accused of conflicts of interest involving multimillion-dollar share deals, becomes the sole first deputy to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. As predicted, Vladislav Surkov, one of the architects of Putin’s authoritarian system, who was sacrificed by the Kremlin at the height of December’s pro-democracy protests, becomes government chief of staff. Symbolically, former Moscow police chief Lieutenant General Vladimir Kolokoltsev, who oversaw the crackdowns on anti-Putin protesters, has been named minister of the interior.
One new appointment that brought considerable media attention was that of Vladimir Medinsky, a former official in Putin’s United Russia party, to the post of minister of culture. Medinsky, whose own doctoral dissertation was called out for plagiarism, had previously served on the short-lived Kremlin commission on “countering the attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russian interests.” Among other things, he had called Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first (and, for now, only) democratically elected president, a “putschist”; gave credit to Stalin for “being an expert in ideology”; and contended, when discussing history textbooks, that “we should not be fostering pluralism in the minds of fifth-graders.” Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky predicted that Medinsky’s role in the new government will be that of “a propaganda minister in the style of Goebbels.”
“Liberal” technocrats are represented by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Medvedev aide, officially placed in charge of Russia’s energy sector (in reality, energy is expected to remain firmly under the control of Igor Sechin, Putin’s longtime associate and the newly appointed head of the state oil company Rosneft). Dvorkovich was, apparently, not the first candidate to become the token “liberal” in the Cabinet. According to the well-informed Vedomosti newspaper, the job of deputy premier was offered to former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and to third-placed presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov—both of them rejecting the offer (not out of principle, but on an honest assessment of the current government’s prospects).
Putin’s most telling personnel decision, however, was made last Friday. Igor Kholmanskikh, a tank factory worker from Nizhny Tagil, was named presidential envoy to the Urals federal district. His political debut came in December, when, days after the first 100,000-strong opposition rally, he offered Putin to bring “the boys” to Moscow to “defend our stability.” “You are head and shoulders above the good-for-nothings and loudmouths,” responded Putin, in obvious reference to Russia’s educated urban middle classes, which formed the backbone of the pro-democracy movement. Analysts are comparing Kholmanskikh’s appointment to the last czarist government’s support for nationalist “Black Hundred” gangs, and to Mikhail Gorbachev’s increasing reliance, at the end of his rule, on Communist hard-liners. In the end, neither provided a genuine base of support when the country demanded change.