NO SHORT, SHARP SHOCKS IN PUTIN GOVERNMENT

NO SHORT, SHARP SHOCKS IN PUTIN GOVERNMENT

For months now, Russia's government ministers have not exactly been singing the famous song of those condemned to die in Gilbert & Sullivan's opera, ''The Mikado.''

According to the song, they should have been singing about awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper, on a big black block.In fact, as the ministerial selection process wore on in Moscow, it became clear the chopper would be such a cheap one that it would cut off almost no heads.

What the announcement of President Vladimir Putin's new government means is that almost nothing will change. The men who led Russia through the grand larcenies of the Yeltsin period, including the ruble collapse and defaults of 1998, have largely been reappointed.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the new prime minister, is accused, and widely believed, of having used his previous power in the Finance Ministry to provide lucrative favors to bankers, traders, security dealers and company proprietors.

Not since the allegations against Victor Chernomyrdin, the Gazprom executive who was President Boris Yeltsin's prime minister from 1992 to 1998, has so much been said - and so little done - about the propriety of the head of the Russian government.

To all of this, Kasyanov has issued denials, claiming he has no ''concrete ties to any particular financial-industrial group. I maintain contacts with everybody.''

That, of course, is a humorous way of confirming the problem, not solving it.

The new deputy prime minister and finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, has been at the Finance Ministry as a hatchetman for Anatoly Chubais for much of the past decade.

Chubais, once the most powerful figure in Russian politics after President Yeltsin, has been pushed by President Putin to the political periphery. He now runs the state electricity company.

As Gilbert and Sullivan illustrated in song, it is the fate of all hatchetmen to choose their loyalties or their heads. Kudrin has chosen Putin, and Chubais is the loser. Kasyanov, however, is placing his own watchdogs above and below Kudrin, just to be sure.

The abolition of the Trade Ministry is a sign that Russia's mightiest export constituents - the so-called oligarchs who control oil, gas, steel, aluminum, arms, timber, platinum, nickel and diamonds - are more or less content with the international commodity cycle, and their offshore banking arrangements.

They don't really care if Russian products are hit with anti-dumping suits, or the Russian consumer market filled with dumped goods from abroad.

The only protection left for Russia's manufacturing sector will be the ruble - and that's been left in the hands of the same central bankers whose first loyalty, according to international and domestic audits, is their own pockets.

When he was running for election, Putin promised to keep an equal distance from all the oligarchs, and to eliminate them ''as a class.''

The reappointment of the ministers indicates the president has neither the fear, nor the incentive, to upset the way the oligarchs are currently running their businesses.

The reappointment of the Cabinet is simply an invitation - carte blanche in fact - for them to decide the economic policy the country will now follow, just as they were doing before.

This is why weeks of much-publicized research and debate over the government's economic-reform strategy have been nothing but a burlesque.

Corruption masquerading as reform, the buying of offices, and the bribery of the courts were amusing when Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the lyrics and tunes. Russia, as they used to say in Soviet times, dies laughing.

German Gref, whom Putin put in charge of preparing the economic plan, has been given a Cabinet post entitling him to continue this masquerade for as long as he can bear it.

There is a somber side to what has been done and not done. By leaving the Cabinet the way it was, the president is signaling that what really worries him is somewhere and someone else.

This is why the real chopper and the big black block have been moved to the military command-and-control system, and to the regional authorities.

What is happening there is that Putin is making sure no enemies or rivals can threaten him. He has begun a purge of the general staff, and he has dispatched trusted officers from the Army and the old KGB to try to rule the governors.

If there are to be short, sharp shocks in Russian politics over the next year, that is where to look.