President Vladimir Putin has clearly decided that security men should not be the only ones to get their taste of power the financial specialists also deserve their share.
Speaking at a Finance Ministry meeting at the beginning of the week, Putin said: "In the past, Gosplan [the Soviet State Planning Committee] provided us with a pool of officials, but today, it's the Finance Ministry. Your people are even beginning to fill the security ministries."
This all boils down to saying that Putin thinks the financial specialists in the government are the cream of the crop. Certainly, no one would deny that Putin counts on the Finance Ministry and its head, Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, to implement his economic policy.
At the recent meeting, Putin made public just how close he is to Kudrin. He avoided criticizing either Kudrin or the Finance Ministry itself. The government in general took the blame for an unplanned rise in inflation, which, as Putin warned, "could eat up all our revenues."
But these were words of warning rather than an accusation, and in any case, the warning was directed as much at Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as at Kudrin.
The only other warning note in Putin's words was his advice to be careful to avoid "the ministry's own narrow interests rather than broader state interests."
None of this was personal criticism against Kudrin, even though Putin is aware that a number of high-placed Kremlin officials and Kasyanov himself are not satisfied with Kudrin. Kasyanov recently issued an order ticking Kudrin off for "poor coordination of principally important government tasks."
Kudrin has more than once come under fire in the past at discussions in the government and the Kremlin for his lack of organization and weakness as a negotiator with the international financial organizations. But Putin always preferred not to air dirty laundry in public, all the more so as he continues to hold a high opinion of Kudrin despite the latter's administrative shortcomings. Putin has much admiration for his chief financial specialist and in private calls him by his familiar diminutive name, Lyokha.
This closeness has led many observers to conclude that in the event of a government reshuffle, Kudrin would replace Kasyanov as prime minister. Both Kudrin and Kasyanov, however, insist that this is not on the cards. Sources in the Kremlin say that Putin would probably like to make Kudrin No. 1 in the government but that he realizes he has to also consider the views of his team, who aren't as convinced as he is by Kudrin's talents.
What is clear is that Kudrin won't take a drop in status. There are no plans to abolish the post of deputy prime minister at this stage of government reform, and Kudrin is best-placed to keep the title. This means that Kasyanov will have to continue his rivalry within the government with the president's favorite. Kremlin sources say that Kasyanov is also in no danger of losing his job.
But talk of rivalry between Kudrin and Kasyanov sometimes overshadows the fact that their basic views don't differ. They have similar approaches to monetary and tax policy, for example. Where they do part ways is in their behavior. Kasyanov is a man of extreme caution, while Kudrin is desperately impetuous.
Even Putin once criticized Kudrin for this aspect of his nature, in relation to Kudrin's proposal to abolish benefits and allowances for military personnel. Putin accused Kudrin of following a narrow logic dictated by his ministry's own interests and advised him to take a broader view if he didn't want his job to be endangered.
Kudrin learned his lesson and showed much more prudence after this episode when dealing with the security ministries. In spite of his impetuosity, Kudrin knows how to be a diplomat when he wants to, as he has shown on a number of occasions. He was the only member of the Cabinet to write his proposals on reorganization after Putin's federal address rather than before. This shows that Kudrin makes a rule of listening to senior comrades and following the party line, something he probably learned while working with his mentor, Anatoly Chubais.
At the recent Finance Ministry meeting, Kudrin spent most of his speaking time developing Putin's ideas, above all, his proposal to move over to a dual-budget system. (Under this scheme, the main budget would be formed based on the most pessimistic forecasts, while the second budget would be formed with extra revenue).
Kudrin immediately caught on to the idea, even though his Finance Ministry colleagues considered it total nonsense. Deputy Finance Minister Tatyana Golikova, for example, said a dual-budget system was impossible because the law doesn't allow it. Kudrin, in reply, said the law could always be amended.
The Finance Ministry will now get on with devising methods to draw up the budget using this new scheme and will draft legal amendments to enable the new idea to be fully implemented in 2003.
Kudrin is certainly good at interpreting what direction the winds of power are blowing in. He is on top, and he and his ministry have that prized commodity influence.