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Putin fires premier and Cabinet

Putin's decision comes ahead of next month's presidential election.
Putin's decision comes ahead of next month's presidential election.

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Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- President Vladimir Putin has dismissed Russia's prime minister and his Cabinet just two weeks ahead of the country's presidential election.

Putin, who is heavily favored to win re-election in the March 14 vote, announced on national television that Viktor Khristenko would serve as acting prime minister.

Khristenko was a deputy under Mikhail Kasyanov, who had been prime minister since 2000.

"In accordance with article 117 of the Russian constitution, I have decided today that the government is to resign," Putin said.

Under the Russian constitution, the prime minister and Cabinet automatically resign as soon as a president is elected or re-elected. However, any of those officials could be reappointed.

Appointing a new government could help Putin begin implementing key reforms in advance of the election.

"This decision is not connected with the assessment of the work of the previous line-up of the government, which I qualify, on the whole, as satisfactory," Putin said of his decision.

"It's been prompted by the intention to lay out my position one more time on the question of what course of development the country will take after March 14, 2004."

Putin said Russian voters should know who would run his new government before they go to the polls, and suggested that the outgoing leaders were having difficulty carrying out reforms because they did not know whether they would be in their positions in a month.

He said he would announce his choice for prime minister in one week but it was unclear whether he would choose Khristenko.

Kasyanov served under previous president Boris Yeltsin and was the last survivor from Yeltsin's government to remain in a top government post.

'Unsettling element'

The announcement sent shares tumbling on the Russian stock market, with dips of 3 to 5 percent within minutes of Putin's statement, The Associated Press quoted the Interfax news agency as reporting.

Investment analyst James Fenkner with Moscow-based Troika Dialogue said that while Putin's move caught the Russian markets off guard, it could soon prove popular and help boost the markets.

Fenkner also said the move showed Putin was very comfortable with his re-election prospects.

Kasyanov became prime minister in 2000 following Putin's election.
Kasyanov became prime minister in 2000 following Putin's election.

But Robert Skidelsky, director of Moscow's School of Political Studies, was surprised by the move.

"It introduces an unsettling element into politics and that unsettles investors," he told Reuters. "One of the great flaws in the Yeltsin regime was its unpredictability. One of the great strengths of the Putin regime is that it has been predictable.

"This coming out of the blue, without any preparation, will just strike people as an arbitrary act, and I think unsettling for that reason.

"It's pretty paper-thin because he's going to have to form yet another team in a couple of months' time. He didn't need a demonstration of resolve and he didn't need to announce what his next four years' program was because he wasn't in any danger of losing the election. He wasn't under any pressure."

CNN Correspondents Ryan Chilcote and Jill Dougherty and Producer Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report.

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