Vladimir Putin is doing his best to make sure he'll have friends in high places to help him wield power after he gives up Russia's presidency in May.
In addition to his recent appointment of longtime friend and former aide Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, Putin has placed allies -- many with links to each other -- at the head of key government agencies and state-owned companies.
``Putin's network is a critical element of his plans to retain power,'' said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow consulting firm. ``For a time at least, it should keep him in control.''
Putin, 55, has said he wants to retain ``influence'' under the next president. He plans to head his United Russia party's list of candidates in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, so he may end up controlling a two-thirds majority in the legislature. He has said it would be ``quite realistic'' for him to become prime minister.
Like Zubkov, four of five deputy prime ministers are Putin associates from St. Petersburg. Once a Soviet KGB intelligence officer, Putin also has hired former spies for top posts, including First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, 54, and deputy chief of staff Viktor Ivanov, 57, who is no relation.
Many foreign investors and ordinary citizens welcome Putin's continued sway in Russia, having benefited from years of political calm and economic growth. Opposition politicians warn that his prolonged grasp on power risks a return to Soviet-style totalitarianism or, should his successor object, a power struggle.
Web of Relationships
Putin's surprise Sept. 12 appointment of Zubkov drew attention to the web of close-knit relationships that has developed beneath the president. ``Putin only trusts people he knows personally,'' said Yury Korgunyuk of INDEM, a Moscow-based research group that lobbies for government transparency.
Family ties are common among his appointees. Zubkov's son- in-law is Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, 45. Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko's wife, Tatyana Golikova, 41, recently was named health minister.
Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov's son is married to a daughter of Igor Sechin, Putin's other deputy chief of staff. Sechin, 47, who worked for Putin in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, also is chairman of state-run OAO Rosneft, Russia's top oil producer.
Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, was deputy to Putin when the president ran that KGB successor agency. One of Patrushev's sons works at the state-run VTB Group bank; another is a Sechin adviser at Rosneft.
Reporting to Putin
While Russian law prohibits having one close relative subordinate to another, officials say there are no such relationships under Putin. Defense Minister Serdyukov reports to Putin, not to father-in-law Zubkov.
``This in no way hinders members of the government from carrying out their duties,'' Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin said in a September radio interview.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed as ``hypothetical speculation'' the notion that he would maintain influence through well-placed allies. ``It depends on whether they continue their jobs under the new president's administration,'' he said.
Such close ties aren't new in Russia. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had an inner circle known as ``the Family.'' Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, was a close, unofficial adviser.
Putin heads an even tighter, more secretive system, said Olga Khryshtanovskaya, a Moscow-based political analyst: ``The secrecy in policy-making is colossal.''
The naming of Zubkov as prime minister surprised even some close Putin allies, including Sergei Ivanov, the first deputy prime minister. Once a top presidential contender, Ivanov's star has waned, with Zubkov now getting more attention on state television.
Mikhail Fradkov, Zubkov's predecessor, also was caught unaware, having official events scheduled for the day he was dismissed.
Putin has boosted presidential powers by squeezing the opposition out of parliament, nearly eliminating independent media and expanding control over industries. His allies now run many big Russian companies as part of the growing cadre of bureaucrat-oligarchs that is a defining feature of his presidency.
St. Petersburg Ties
OAO Gazprom, the world's largest natural-gas producer, is run by people who worked with Putin in St. Petersburg, including the company's chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, another first deputy prime minister and presidential front-runner until Zubkov's ascension.
Viktor Ivanov, the Putin aide, served in the KGB with him and is chairman of OAO Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline. Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, 47, another St. Petersburg associate, chairs ZAO Alrosa, the world's second-largest diamond-mining company.
Uncertainty over Putin's future has reignited Soviet-era Kremlinology, as observers try to fathom the opaque government's inner workings. At 66, Zubkov's age and loyalty to Putin lead some to suspect that he would be a compliant president, possibly stepping aside mid-term or in 2012 so his predecessor could seek a new stint without violating the bar in Russia's constitution on three consecutive terms.
If Putin becomes prime minister, he would serve at the president's pleasure. On Oct. 26, Putin doused speculation that he would transfer power to the prime minister before relinquishing the presidency. With a Putin-friendly successor and a Putin-controlled parliament, he might not need to.
``The aim of Putin and his team is to preserve power for the long term,'' said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the Parliament's few remaining independent lawmakers. ( Bloomberg )