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Moscow Times
May 14, 2003
Kasyanov and Gref Battling For Survival
By Yulia Latynina

On Thursday, the Cabinet convenes to discuss the program of administrative reform proposed by Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref.

In the run-up to this much-awaited event, all of the major newspapers have run articles maintaining that Gref's proposals for a major overhaul of the government were undermined by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The Gazeta newspaper made its feelings abundantly clear with the headline, "Kasyanov Dented Gref." "The prime minister is bracing for an attack by the president, but the victim could be German Gref," opined Kommersant. Vedomosti described Gref's recipe for reform as a "Battle with Excess Weight.

Common to all these accounts was the assumption that Gref's absence at Thursday's Cabinet session -- he has been on vacation since April 21 --will confirm his defeat at the hands of the malicious Kasyanov, who has devoured the only liberal bureaucrat in his Cabinet.

Unfortunately, Gref's vacation has not derailed reforms. Everyone in the government knows that Gref is suffering from a nervous breakdown. Let's call it that and not get into the ridiculous and scabrous rumors making the rounds in Moscow. But there is no point in passing off Gref's medical problems as a change in the course of government policy.

There is nothing especially revolutionary or even liberal in Gref's plan. True, he proposes to abolish 256 ministerial functions. That sounds like a lot until you realize that ministries all told perform some 5,000 functions. In other words, Gref concluded that 4,744 of them were worth saving.

True, Gref proposed decentralizing the government's decision-making process, and Kasyanov nixed that idea, not wanting, as Kommersant put it, to surrender the last levers of power at his disposal.

But who said we have a centralized government to begin with? Kasyanov suspended Yevgeny Nazdratenko, the head of the State Fisheries Committee, who was suspected of massive corruption. In other countries, people leave the government or shoot themselves in a situation like this. But Nazdratenko found a way to resume his post and provided testimony on the basis of which the Prosecutor General's Office threatened to interrogate Kasyanov. Only then did the president take mercy and appoint Nazdratenko to the Security Council.

If that's a centralized government, what would decentralization look like?

Russia desperately needs thoroughgoing reforms, but Gref's plan does not provide that. Perhaps he was not up to the task. Then again, a member of the government would have as much difficulty reforming the government as Baron Munchausen had pulling himself out of a quagmire by the hair.

Governing and reforming the system of governance are incompatible functions, perhaps because the problems of our medieval regime require more than superficial reform. Whatever the case, the result is Gref's mental disorder. He was given a task. He has a conscience and a good head on his shoulders. He realized that there was no way he could accomplish that task and suffered a nervous breakdown -- a problem that almost none of his colleagues in the St. Petersburg clan will ever face.

The situation is very simple. United Russia has already been promised Kasyanov's job. The Kremlin administration needs someone to blame for the failure of reform in this election year. The failure was blamed on Kasyanov, who passed the buck in turn to Gref. What can you say? Well, say thank you that we aren't living in the Middle Ages, and that Kasyanov is not being accused of poisoning Gref with belladonna or putting the evil eye on him.

Yulia Latynina is author and host of "Yest Mneniye" on TVS.

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