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Low-Profile Technocrat Chosen As New Russian Prime Minster

By Seth Mydans

The New York Times -- MOSCOW

President Vladimir V. Putin surprised Russia on Monday by naming a low-profile technocrat as prime minister, a position that answers directly to the president.

The appointee, Mikhail Y. Fradkov, 53, has held a number of mostly economic portfolios including chief of the tax police and was most recently Russia’s representative to the European Union.

Experts described him as a competent nonpolitical figure acceptable both to the hard-line wing and to the liberal economic wing of Putin’s administration -- a “liberal hawk,” in the words of one commentator.

In appointing him, Putin ended a guessing game that had begun to overshadow a predictable presidential election two weeks from now that is seen as a sure thing for Putin.

Already, the big political question is the succession in 2008, when Putin cannot run again. After he fired the incumbent prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, last Tuesday, political commentators began focusing on his replacement as a possible front-runner four years from now.

The closest anyone came on Monday to foreseeing that possibility for Fradkov was a commentator who said, “Anything is possible.”

Aleksei Moiseyef, an economist at the Renaissance Capital investment house, said, “Without a doubt, he is clearly a bureaucrat without any political ambition.” In appointing Fradkov, he said, Putin avoided creating an alternative center of power or a rival for the political spotlight.

Fradkov has been associated, however, with Sergei B. Ivanov, the defense minister and a close ally of Putin whose name remains near the top of most lists of potential future presidents.

In effect, said Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Political Technologies Center, Fradkov has been selected as a political kamikaze to do the government’s dirty work, to take the blame and, sooner or later, to crash and burn.

In itself, Fradkov’s appointment does not send any strong signal about the president’s future policies. These may become clearer once Putin begins his second term. Some commentators view his first term as a period of consolidation after a time of increasing disorder under his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin.

In announcing the appointment, Putin said he had looked for “a highly professional person, organized, having strong work experience in varied branches of state activity.” He added that Fradkov would deal strongly with corruption because he “knows the security structures since he was the deputy secretary of the Security Council and headed the tax police.”

In addition, Fradkov, who speaks English and Spanish, was an economic adviser in the Soviet Embassy in India. In the early 1990s, he was a member of Russia’s delegation to the United Nations and headed the delegation to the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade.

He served as minister for foreign economic relations before heading the Federal Tax Police in a nation where tax collection has been a major problem.

His appointment still needs the approval of Parliament, but that is seen as only a formality.

Fradkov’s experience at the European Union in the last year emphasizes the importance the Kremlin places on the coming expansion of that group, which has given rise to tensions over what Russia sees as economic and political encroachments along its borders.

In addition to avoiding the creation of a rival, Putin has found a man who leans toward both strong government controls and liberal economics and foreign relations, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political commentator who has analyzed the composition of the president’s inner circle. At the same time, his working relationship with the security services puts him in sync with a key power block behind the president, she said.

“I call people like this ’affiliated siloviki,”’ she said, using the word for the organs of power that include the secret service, the police, the military and the prosecutor’s office.

In this mix, Fradkov shows some resemblance to Putin himself, leading one analyst, Roland Nash of Renaissance Capital, to call him “a totally loyal, reasonably faceless ’Mini-Me”’ for the president.

NYT-03-01-04 1905EST