Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has reshuffled his administration, triggering intense speculation here that a succession process is getting underway.
Putin appointed chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev, 40, as first deputy prime minister, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, another close ally, was appointed deputy prime minister but retained his defense portfolio.
The rare reshuffle is being seen as maneuvering to put Medvedev -- who is also chairman of the board of Gazprom, Russia's natural gas giant -- in position to succeed Putin in 2008, with Ivanov as a fallback.
Putin said in televised remarks that Medvedev would be in charge of four national priority projects -- healthcare, education, housing, and agriculture.
Ivanov said he would use the new post to tackle the defense industry, while continuing to handle his present defense duties.
The leader of the nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party, Dmitry Rogozin, said he was confident Medvedev would be Putin's successor. The appointment was made to ensure more publicity for Medvedev, said Rogozin, predicting that the rising star could head the government within three or four months.
The changes brought complaints from some politicians.
"We want the next presidential elections in Russia to be honest and we are not satisfied with [arranged successions]," said the head of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), Nikita Belykh.
Russian media joined in the speculation. Medvedev was set to become "shadow prime minister," predicted the Izvestia center-right daily.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda daily suggested that Putin had identified three possible successors -- Medvedev, Ivanov and Sergei Sobyanin, the former governor of an oil-rich region who was named Medvedev's replacement as presidential chief of staff.
Putin is due to step down in 2008 when presidential elections are scheduled to be held.
Apart from the succession rumors, there has been talk that Putin could use his high approval ratings in a bid to amend the constitution and secure a third term in office.
Another theory circulating involves a plan to overhaul Russia's political system, to enable Putin to become a powerful prime minister, while the next president would be a figurehead.
In a report for foreign investors, the British Control Risk Group (CRG) forecast that current Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov would leave his post next year, to be replaced by Putin's chosen successor.
CRG said the event would be Russia's main political event of 2006.
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