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Promotion by Putin puts political foes on equal footing

Rivals considered top candidates for Russian president

Sergei Ivanov, 54, was promoted to a top government post yesterday. Sergei Ivanov, 54, was promoted to a top government post yesterday.

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin promoted his hawkish defense minister to a top government post yesterday, a move that puts Putin's two heirs apparent on equal footing before next year's election to replace the popular leader.

Both Sergei Ivanov and the more liberal Dmitry Medvedev have received extensive coverage in the Russian media, which is strongly influenced by the Kremlin, and are seen as the chief rivals for anointment by Putin as his favored successor in the March 2008 election.

Each man now holds the title of first vice-premier, formalizing a rivalry that is never mentioned officially but is played out daily on state-run television. News broadcasts prominently feature them trying to look presidential in government meetings, speeches, and closely choreographed visits to farms and factories.

Putin replaced Ivanov as defense minister with Anatoly Serdyukov, until now head of the federal tax agency. Putin praised Ivanov's work during six years as military chief and said he was broadening his responsibilities to include oversight of defense and some civilian industries.

"It's impossible to sit in two chairs," Putin said, explaining the move. Analysts said it could boost Ivanov's image by distancing him from the military, which faces persistent criticism over the vicious hazing of conscripts by older soldiers -- abuses that make Russia's military draft unpopular with young men and their worried parents.

"Now he has finally got rid of these nets that dragged him to the bottom and has been given a good, clean job," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, a US-based think tank.

Volk said the change signaled Putin's apparent intention to put Ivanov in a more even competition with Medvedev, a former Kremlin chief of staff. Medvedev was thrust into the spotlight when Putin appointed him to his current post and put him in charge of national projects including improvements to housing and funding increases for education and health care.

Ivanov "has fulfilled the tasks he faced as Defense Minister and fulfilled them successfully," Putin said in an announcement shown on evening news programs. He heaped more praise on a beaming Ivanov in a meeting with top Defense Ministry officials.

Ivanov had been one of two deputy prime ministers, while Medvedev was the sole first deputy prime minister. The promotion was the latest evidence that both men are being groomed by the Kremlin for potential presidential runs.

Putin is barred from a third consecutive term by the constitution, and has suggested he might back a favored successor as the vote draws nearer. A candidate with Putin's support would have a huge advantage, especially because of the Kremlin's influence over the media.

In comparing Medvedev with Ivanov, voters might see a choice between the sterner Ivanov, a former Soviet KGB spy, and Medvedev, regarded as a more liberal technocrat. But both men are Putin loyalists.

Putin's critics say that recent electoral reforms have made it even harder for candidates independent of the Kremlin to win election at any level of government.

Yuri Korgunyuk, a top analyst with the independent INDEM think tank, said the reshuffle was Putin's way of reaffirming his dominance of the political scene.

"Formally speaking, it's a promotion for Ivanov, but he remains just a pawn," he said. "It will be up to Putin to decide whether to make this pawn a queen."

Volk also said it was too early to say whether Putin was inclined to anoint Ivanov or Medvedev as a preferred successor. "It's all unpredictable, we may see other candidates," he said, referring to speculation that the engineered rivalry could be a feint ahead of the emergence of a new Kremlin choice.

Both Ivanov and Medvedev are among the many officials in a clannish Russian leadership whose ties with Putin go back to his native St. Petersburg, but they represent different aspects of Putin's past -- and possible different courses for Russia's future.

Ivanov shares the president's chilly criticism of US foreign policy and his blustery warnings to the West.

He is the same age as Putin, 54, and Russian analysts have speculated that similarities in their views on issues such as US missile defense plans mean the president is leaning toward picking Ivanov as a successor.

Medvedev, 41, a former lawyer and law teacher, is more conciliatory and business-savvy, courting the West as leader of the Russian delegation at economic meetings in Davos, Switzerland.