Returning triumphant to the Moscow Times after his dustup with the former editor, the brilliant Pavel Felgenhaur analyzes the Zubkov question:
The newly appointed prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, told journalists in Sochi on Tuesday that acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov had submitted a letter of resignation to President Vladimir Putin. Zubkov said he discussed the matter with Serdyukov, who is his son-in-law, and they decided it would be appropriate to resign.
In Soviet times, close relatives were strictly forbidden to be in direct subordination to each other on all levels of Communist Party and government administration. There was a special term -- semeistvennost, or nepotism. The restriction was established as the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, and it was aimed at preventing the formation of family clans within the system. It also was a political rebuke of the practices of imperial Russia, in which members of the ruling Romanov dynasty and a handful of other aristocratic families occupied high positions in the military and civil administration of the country, forming circles of kin relationships.
Of course, the sons of high Communist officials were appointed anyway to important positions within the Soviet Union. There was a line that was never crossed, however -- direct subordination. It was acceptable if there was at least one other official in the line of command between father and son.
Zubkov is an old Communist hand and knows all the rules of the game. It's possible that powerful Kremlin clans were pressing for Serdyukov's resignation. If Zubkov and Serdyukov were allowed to remain in their respective positions, this would have constituted a powerful clan in and of itself, while Zubkov on his own is a lonely figure who will need time to establish a constituency.
It is not guaranteed, however, that Serdyukov will indeed leave his post. He was appointed defense minister in February to fulfill a specific mission that Putin believes to be of utmost national importance: to fight massive graft in the Defense Ministry.
Under Putin, the defense budget has multiplied as petrodollars poured into the country. In 2000, it was 146 billion rubles ($5.8 billion); this year, it is 870 billion rubles ($34 billion). But it is unclear where all this money is going. Contract soldiers today get on average only 8,000 rubles ($315) a month; officers get 12,000 ($470) to 15,000 ($590). Moreover, service conditions in the military continue to be appalling and the ranks are full of discontent. This year's procurement budget for new weapons is some 300 billion rubles ($11.8 billion), but the only procurement to speak of consists of 30 new tanks, several helicopters, missiles and other small items.
Under Sergei Ivanov, who was defense minister from 2001 to 2007, billions of defense rubles were apparently going into a bottomless pit. Ivanov, who is Putin's old-time buddy, was promoted to first deputy prime minister, while Serdyukov was told to clean up the Defense Ministry. A number of Ivanov's appointees in the Defense Ministry have been replaced. Vedomosti reported last week that Lyubov Kudelina, the budget chief of the Defense Ministry, might lose her post. In addition, Interfax said Monday that the chief of the General Staff, Yury Baluyevsky, who had an extremely good relationship with Ivanov, might be on his way to a speedy retirement.
Serdyukov's reforms in the Defense Ministry have been put in full swing, but the mission has a very long way to go before it is fulfilled. Replacing Serdyukov now with anyone else would mean that there is no time left before the presidential election in March to achieve any real progress in fighting graft in the Ministry. Putin may not like this outcome.
Putin is a divine figure who can bend any rule in any direction. He can simply order Serdyukov to continue carrying on his duties without any particular clarification. If necessary, justifications can be easily found for this. Under the Constitution, the defense minister, like other so-called "power ministers," reports directly to the president, not the prime minister. Serdyukov could, for example, temporarily divorce Zubkov's daughter, and Moscow's Basmanny District Court may legalize the divorce in a split second, if the Kremlin orders. Or Putin may in fact replace Serdyukov with someone else.
The speaker of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, has praised Serdyukov for doing the right thing and resigning, but he told journalists that Putin might not accept the resignation. Mironov also said the new Cabinet would be named within a week. In short, Mironov has no clue, just like everyone else in Moscow. Putin keeps his cards close to his chest.