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Europe

Russian Leader Tightens Grip on Power as Polls Loom

Days before national polls that are expected to bring him a landslide win, President Putin has carried out a surprise cabinet reshuffle in what is being seen as the latest maneuver in consolidating his power.

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Putin: The presumed winner of a one-sided race

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday unveiled a streamlined cabinet dominated by prominent economic liberals and modernizers, reinforcing the impression that the stage is increasingly being set for the president's reelection in national polls on Sunday.

Tuesday's move, which gives the Kremlin greater leverage in driving through Putin's economic reforms and pro-western policies, completes a shake-up process that began two weeks ago when Putin dismissed Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his cabinet and appointed Mikhail Fradkov as his new prime minister.

Sergej Lawrow Neuer Außenminister in Russland

Sergei Lavrov

One of the most significant changes in the latest reshuffle on Tuesday announced by Putin himself on national television is the appointment of Sergei Lavrov (photo), Moscow's longtime ambassador to the United Nations, as foreign minister. The 53-year-old Lavrov, a career diplomat who led Moscow's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq last year and a fluent English speaker, is considered a popular choice.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was quick to congratulate Lavrov, saying he had "learnt to appreciate both his wisdom and his wit and considers him a friend" after their years of work together.

Reshuffle hoped to boost reforms

The cabinet revamp, which aims to separate political decision-making from implementation and control, is also believed to curb the influence of top hard-line politicians on security and law enforcement agencies. "This is the team which after the election will immediately and assuredly take up the job of strengthening the country and improving the quality of life of our citizens," Putin said on television.

The president, who also slashed the number of ministers and deputy prime ministers, added that he hoped the reshuffle would make the cabinet more efficient and give a boost to economic reforms. "This is not to make us all feel bloated with our own importance, but to increase personal responsibility of each minister for his job," Putin said.

With popularity rating of up to 80 percent, Putin's reelection is almost considered a foregone conclusion.

Economic analysts have largely welcomed the cabinet revamp. "This simply shows that they have chosen the best people," Christopher Granville, a strategist with United Financial Group in London told Reuters. "This is a pretty positive lineup for reform from the point of view of the financial markets."

Lots of pluses

Putin, a former KGB officer, has indeed been credited with turning around Russia's fortunes ever since he took office four years ago, succeeding Boris Yeltsin.

Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) has risen every year since at an annual rate of around 5 percent. The economy -- largely fed by oil exports -- has been stable. Inflation has been fairly low, and wages, pensions and foreign debts are largely paid on time.

Bush Putin

The Bushes welcomes the Putins to their ranch in Crawford

Putin has also pushed through reforms, key among them a law permitting the sale of farmland for the first time since the czarist era. He has moved to rein in Russia's unruly regional leaders and wield more control over Russia's powerful business community. He has also forged close ties with U.S. President Bush (photo).

Flaws and weaknesses

But despite his glowing record, Putin will have his work cut out upon reelection if he is to show he is serious about keeping Russian on the reform path.

Increasingly accused of an autocratic style, critics question Putin's commitment to democracy given the Kremlin's growing influence. International observers have blamed his tight control of the media for sweeping wins for the pro-Kremlin party in December.

"The lack of basic democratic institutions such as political opposition and civic control over the workings of the government makes any administrative reform ineffective," Boris Nemtsov, a leader of Russia's weakened liberal political movement told the Financial Times. "There is nobody who is able to objectively and openly assess the success or failure of this government."

Tschetschenische Rebellen mit russischen Kriegsgefangenen

A Chechen fighter points his rifle to the head of a Russian prisoner

Chechnya (photo) also remains a major sticking point with human rights groups who accuse Putin of curtailing human rights and reining in critics. Putin's term has also been plagued by bombings that have killed hundreds outside Chechnya. Stifling red tape and widespread corruption also remain major concerns.

Moscow's relationship with the EU has been going through a rocky patch, chiefly due to concern that the Kremlin might not extend its existing partnership agreement with Brussels to include the ten enlargement countries -- seven of which were once part of the Soviet bloc.

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