Russia's new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov displayed a tough Soviet style of management at his first government meeting on Thursday, barking orders at underperforming ministers and calling one of them "comrade". President Vladimir Putin surprised Russians last week by appointing the little-known Zubkov, a 66-year-old former collective farm boss, to lead the government in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections. Zubkov, who formerly headed an anti-money laundering watchdog, was tasked by the Kremlin leader with ensuring that the cabinet "ticks like Swiss watch".
Looking confident at Thursday's meeting, Zubkov made clear he would not tolerate any slacking in the government. "In some areas we have managed to move ahead, while in others the work has slowed down or halted completely," the grim-looking premier told silent ministers.
"I want to remind you about your personal responsibility."
Zubkov met Putin earlier this week to discuss changes to the cabinet. Newspapers have speculated that Economy Minister German Gref may be among the casualties but Zubkov gave no hint on Thursday of what changes he planned.
Boris Gryzlov, leader of the United Russia party patronised by Putin, said the party's four members in government were "likely to keep their posts". He told reporters during a visit to southern Russia that they were Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu and Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev.
Living up to his reputation for loyalty to Putin, the new premier made clear he would not tolerate any deviation from the Kremlin line. "Who dared make changes to the presidential orders?" he asked influential transport minister Yuri Levitin when discussing amendments made to draft laws on Russian sea ports. "Who is there from the financial department?" he barked after mentioning a failure to deliver timely aid to victims of a recent earthquake on the remote Sakhalin island.
Attempts by department head Anton Drozdov to explain himself were rejected. "I ask you to arrange a business trip to Sakhalin for comrade Drozdov and keep him there until people get their money," Zubkov told Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin. Analysts have interpreted Zubkov's appointment as an attempt by Putin to keep a tight grip on power by picking a reliable, low-profile ally to run the government while keeping everyone guessing about who might succeed him as president. Putin has added to the riddle saying that Zubkov, who has strong personal links with him since they worked together in St. Petersburg City Hall in the 1990s, was among people he thought could run for president in March.
Another option analysts are mulling is that Zubkov could keep the prime minister's job well after the March polls to make sure the next president does not deviate from Putin's line.