Russian political analysts are abuzz, discussing President Putin's surprise shake-up of his cabinet and looking for clues as to who he may pick to groom as his successor before his second and final term ends in 2008. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow examines reaction to the changes, which include promotions for President Putin's chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
President Putin promoted two trusted allies to top cabinet posts this week in a move seen by political analysts as a possible start to what some in Moscow are calling "operation successor."
During a cabinet meeting Monday, President Putin promoted his chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, to the post of first deputy prime minister, a position in which he will now be responsible for priority national projects that, if successful, could woo future voters. As for Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, he was elevated to deputy prime minister and tasked with responsibility for Russia's security agencies.
Mr. Putin also appointed Tyumen Governor and Kremlin loyalist, Sergei Sobyanin, as his new chief of staff.
Briefing journalists in Moscow mid-week about the changes, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said the new appointments will strengthen the Russian government in all respects.
Mr. Fradkov said in remarks broadcast on Russian television that the changes are aimed at forwarding deeper social and economic reforms, which some critics say have been stymied by Russian bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that in her view the changes are only designed to strengthen the Kremlin's hold on power.
Speaking on Russian Radio, Ms. Kryshtanovskaya said that is why it is necessary for President Putin to shake things up by switching people's seats and positions. "Some will rise, while others will go," she said. But overall, she says, she doubts the next government will contain many new faces.
Ms. Kryshtanovskaya also notes that technocrat Prime Minister Fradkov kept his position this time around. But she says she does not believe he will last forever.
Analyst Kryshtanovskaya says she feels Mr. Fradkov is simply holding the spot for someone still come, someone perhaps like Mr. Medvedev.
Still others, like analyst Nikolai Petrov of Moscow's Carnegie Center, say it is anyone's guess who President Putin will pick to run as his successor.
Mr. Petrov says the main thing that strikes him about this week's appointments is that they are "intermediate in nature." He also notes that the Russian president, who spent years working and ultimately heading the KGB, continues to practice politics in what he likens to a secret services operation.
Mr. Petrov adds that the changes were apparently so closely held that even those among the new appointments did not appear to know of their promotions nor, he points out, were there enough chairs to go around for the announcement ceremony, which was broadcast on Russian television.
The President of the Indem Foundation in Moscow, Georgy Satarov, told Russia's influential Kommersant newspaper this week that ambiguity is pure President Putin. Mr. Satarov was also quoted as saying that he feels Operation Successor may prove to be the beginning of, what he called, Operation Evasive Action.
In other words, the analysts say the man ultimately picked to fill President Putin's shoes may be as big a surprise as when President Yeltsin pulled Mr. Putin out of relative obscurity, into the nation's highest office.