Talk about an inauspicious debut. During his first meeting with Cabinet staff after being named Prime Minister, Mikhail Fradkov seemed lost. "His appointment was obviously as unexpected to him as it was to us," says a senior Cabinet official. "He seemed unprepared, like he didn't know where to start." That's not surprising, since Fradkov was the rather nondescript ambassador to the E.U. when Putin plucked him from obscurity last week to replace Mikhail Kasyanov as Russia's No. 2, responsible for directing the work of the Cabinet.
Putin's official explanation for the switch was that he wanted Russians to know his second-term Prime Minister in advance, so the new Cabinet could get right to work after the March 14 election. Fradkov, 53, "knows the security structures," Putin said, and thus "has good experience in the battle with corruption." But many suspect the move was designed to further consolidate Putin's power. Kasyanov was the last top official with close links to the Family, as the powerful political and business associates of former President Boris Yeltsin are known. Putin and Kasyanov clashed over recent moves to crack down on businessmen like Yukos oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In 1999, when Yeltsin picked an undistinguished bureaucrat named Putin to be Prime Minister, the choice was widely believed to have been based on Putin's loyalty and presentability rather than his qualifications for the job. Putin now seems to have used similar criteria in selecting Fradkov, though few expect Fradkov to flourish in the role the way Putin did. And according to the senior Russian official, Fradkov himself is "not all that happy" about his appointment: "He has the job, but he doesn't have any leverage."
As a former deputy secretary of the Security Council and former chief of the Tax Police, Fradkov is part of the Siloviki, Putin's coterie of security, law enforcement and military officials. And as the former head of insurance company Ingosstrakh, he knows Russia's business élite and they know him. "We have questions about Fradkov," says Sergey Borisov, president of Opora Rossii, an association of small- and medium-sized businesses. "Too many recall his Tax Police decrees." One granted the cops the right to turn up the heat on anyone "liable to make an offense" by giving incriminating information to the media and their business partners. Another gave cops the right to run lie-detector tests on suspects and their families, including children over 14.
According to State Duma Deputy Mikhail Zadornov, who served with Fradkov in the Cabinet from 1997-99, the new Prime Minister "does not have a political agenda of his own. He implements orders." It's not clear yet what those orders will be. So far, Fradkov has talked of "making the country competitive and setting up a concrete plan of work."
"Fradkov is not just a reformer, he's also a creator," says Duma Speaker and leader of the pro-Putin United Russia Party Boris Gryzlov. If that's so, there's not much evidence of it on Fradkov's résumé. The last three agencies he ran the Tax Police, the Foreign Economic Relations Ministry and the Trade Ministry all ended up being disbanded.