- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin promoted hawkish Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to first deputy prime minister yesterday in a move that strengthens his position as a top contender to replace the Kremlin leader in next year’s election.

The shift puts Mr. Ivanov in the same post as Dmitry Medvedev, who is regarded as a market reformer and liberal. The two men are seen as the leading candidates to succeed Mr. Putin.

Anatoly Serdyukov, until now head of the federal tax agency, replaces Mr. Ivanov as defense minister.

Mr. Putin praised Mr. Ivanov in an announcement on the NTV network, saying his close ally “has fulfilled the tasks he faced as defense minister and fulfilled them successfully.” He said Mr. Ivanov’s duties would be broadened to include oversight of defense and some civilian industries, but that he could not hold both positions at the same time.

“He cannot carry out the defense minister’s responsibilities — it’s impossible to sit in two chairs,” said Mr. Putin, who came out with further praise of a beaming Mr. Ivanov in a meeting with top Defense Ministry officials shown on state-run television.

Mr. Putin said he named Mr. Serdyukov, a longtime tax collection official with no military experience, as defense minister because a sweeping arms-modernization program planned through 2015 requires an appointee with strong economic and financial experience.

Mr. Ivanov, who like Mr. Putin formerly worked in the Soviet KGB, had previously served as one of several deputy prime ministers, while Mr. Medvedev was the sole first deputy prime minister.

Both Mr. Ivanov and Mr. Medvedev have in recent months received wide exposure in the Russian press, where coverage is heavily influenced by the Kremlin. Some analysts say their prominence shows that they are the top candidates to become Mr. Putin’s anointed successor in the March 2008 election.

Mr. Putin is enormously popular but barred by law from seeking a third term.

Mr. Ivanov’s promotion elevates him to the same level with Mr. Medvedev and could boost his image by distancing him from the bloated military, which is plagued by hazing of young conscripts by older soldiers.

Mr. Ivanov, who also serves as chairman of the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, is regarded by some Russians as the stronger of the two candidates. Mr. Ivanov was named defense minister in March 2001.

“Ivanov has not won kudos as defense minister,” said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation think tank’s Moscow office. “Now he has finally gotten rid of these nets that dragged him to the bottom and has been given a good, clean job.”

Mr. Volk said the reshuffle signaled Mr. Putin’s apparent intention to level the playing field in the competition between Mr. Ivanov and Mr. Medvedev, a lawyer who became first deputy prime minister in November 2005.

Mr. Putin also said he named Sergei Naryshkin a vice prime minister in charge of coordinating government activity on foreign trade, primarily with other former Soviet republics. Russia has been embroiled in disputes with several neighbors that have hurt its image in the West. Mr. Naryshkin had been the Cabinet chief of staff.

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