WHAT THE NEW RUSSIAN CABINET CHOICES MEAN

WHAT THE NEW RUSSIAN CABINET CHOICES MEAN

It will take the new president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, at least another month to decide whom he will choose as his prime minister and for his new government.

In Russian villages, they say that if you want to ride in the farmer's cart, you must join in his song. So listen carefully now, and you will be able to hear not only which voices are desperate to be heard, but also what tune they think Putin wants to hear.Already, those who want to hang on to their positions have announced their intention, as Central Bank Chairman Victor Gerashchenko put it, not to resign. Those aspiring to be picked, like the ever-hopeful governor of Saratov, Dmitri Ayatskov, have gone on state television to explain coquettishly how they have been summoned to a meeting in the Kremlin.

Kommersant - a newspaper that has not improved on its reputation since it was bought by Kremlin financier Boris Berezovsky - disclosed this week that it had been given an official document listing Putin's choices.

These are better understood as Berezovsky's selections. Accordingly, it can be understood that his desire for prime minister is Mikhail Kasyanov; for first deputy prime minister, Alexei Kudrin; for deputy premiers, Alexei Gordeev (agriculture), Yuri Shevchenko (social policy), Leonid Reiman (science and technology), and Ilya Klebanov (industry policy); for minister of the economy, German Gref; for minister of finance, Victor Khristenko; and for minister of the interior, Sergei Ivanov.

Since all of these people are currently serving in the government, their selection, if confirmed, would mean that Putin means business as usual. It would mean he will continue to obligate himself to Berezovsky and his minions.

It should also mean that the president is not yet sure enough of himself, or of his political base, to take any initiative likely to risk the pact he made with former President Boris Yeltsin, his family, and cronies.

If the new president insists on packing the government with men from St. Petersburg, as the Kommersant list also suggests, there is no hope of an anti-corruption drive to satisfy the hopes of most Russians and foreign investors in Russia. All that will happen is that a new gang of raiders will fasten itself upon the state's resources, instead of the gang that was nurtured under Yeltsin.

The alienation from Moscow - apparent from Putin's double failure to win a majority of Moscow votes in the parliamentary and the presidential elections - will also continue, and deepen.

Kasyanov is a problematic choice for two reasons. He is identified by Russian businessmen as too close to Roman Abramovich, the Yeltsin family banker and controller of Sibneft oil company, as well as the two largest aluminum producers, Krasnoyarsk and Bratsk.

Kasyanov also faces serious allegations in the press that, while a finance ministry official, he benefitted personally from decisions he made on bond-redemption payments.

If Putin means to keep his distance from the oligarchs, who control most of the country's wealth - let alone destroy them as a class, as he said recently - he cannot appoint Kasyanov.

Kudrin and Khristenko have the appearance of technocrats from years of service in the Finance Ministry. But their patron has been Anatoly Chubais, and if Putin reappoints them, he has made a behind-the-scenes alliance with Chubais, the man who did more than anyone to cause the financial crash of August 1998.

That would preserve continuity with all of the so-called reform efforts of the Yeltsin period - that is to say, grand larceny by the banking sector, and pauperization of the rest of the economy.

The economics portfolio is not half as influential for economic policy as the finance minister or the Central Bank chairman. It is a relic of the State Planning Committee (Gosplan) of the Soviet era.

Nowadays, it is the door through which industry lobbyists must pass to secure government favors. The largesse it can distribute is much more limited, however, than the feeding trough provided by the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank.

So far Gref, one of Putin's St. Petersburg favorites, has done little except open the door for everyone to appeal to Putin for support of their economic policy advice. Gref's statements on Putin's behalf are vague enough to allow everyone to hope for precision that will favor their interests. The Economics Ministry is just the place for him, but he is not a decision-maker.

If Putin cannot renovate the leadership of the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank, then he will allow the two biggest law-breakers in the Russian economy to continue their uncontrollable business.

The Finance Ministry has never carried out its functions in conformity with the laws enacted by Parliament. It regularly violates the budget law. It also conceals its operations to a degree that is incompatible with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Russian constitution. It has been the loyal accountant to the mob that stole the state.

The Central Bank is no better. And if the records of its transactions were ever to be fully audited, and made accountable to Parliament, then the illusion of its statutory independence could be replaced by something much more effective.

Putin has met recently with men who are suitable candidates to run the Central Bank. They are men who are honest; who are not responsible for the theft of state assets in the past; who didn't profit from the crash; and who do not view the Central Bank as a commercial venture run for the benefit of its own officers.

To them, and to Putin, Gerashchenko has announced their appointment would be over his dead body, threatening a fight. If Putin favours Gerashchenko, there can be no clean-up where it is most required - the Russian banking sector.

The published rumor that Putin intends to appoint another St. Petersburger, Sergei Stepashin, as the new head of the Accounting Chamber, Russia's independent state auditor, is a song in the same key.

The Accounting Chamber is the only dedicated corruption fighter in Russia whose reputation remains intact. It is the nearest thing Russia has to the Untouchables - the legendary federal crimebusters in the United States 70 years ago.

Stepashin has been irreversibly compromised by acts of commission and omission during his terms as head of the Federal Security Service and the Ministry of Interior, and as prime minister. He isn't untouchable, and if Putin taps him, it will threaten the chamber even more than Yelstin could.