Russian President Vladimir Putin has shaken up his government, promoting a close aide — and possible successor — while relieving the president of wartorn Chechnya and handing his job to the tiny republic's real strongman.
Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, an old KGB colleague of Putin who is often seen as presidential heir apparent, was made first deputy prime minister in the shakeup, a post that experts say increases his chances of becoming president when Putin steps down in March 2008.
"I have signed a decree to widen the sphere of responsibility of Sergei Borisovich Ivanov in the government of the Russian Federation and put him in charge of coordinating a part of the civilian sector of the economy," Putin said in televised remarks.
Putin praised Ivanov's performance as Defence Minister, and hinted that greater things might be in store for him in future.
"I believe that Sergei Ivanov coped with the tasks I gave him at the Defense Ministry," Putin said. "I decided to promote him and expand the range of his duties in the cabinet."
Anatoly Serdyukov, former head of the Federal Tax Service, was given the Defence Minister's portfolio in Ivanov's place.
Russia's Constitution requires Putin to step down when his second term expires in just over a year's time. He has said that he will cultivate "several candidates" to replace him and name his preference at the outset of next year's election campaign.
Two Kremlin aides, Ivanov and Gazprom head Dmitri Medvedev, are considered to be the leading contenders to be Putin's chosen successor.
Ivanov will remain in charge of supervising Russia's defence industries, including a massive $189-billion project to re-equip the country's armed forces with new planes, tanks, bombers, warships and early warning systems, by 2015.
In another surprise, Putin fired Chechnya's president Alu Alkhanov and elevated the republic's prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, to the post of acting president.
Kadyrov, son of a pro-Moscow Chechen leader who was assassinated by separtists three years ago and head of one of Chechnya's strongest clans, has long been considered the real power in the republic.
He heads a security police force that human rights monitors have accused of abducting opponents, murder, torture and other abuses.
A Kremlin spokesman said that Alkhanov was relieved of his post "by his own wish", but the Chechen president has repeatedly denied any intention of resigning in recent weeks.
Accepting the appointment Friday, Kadyrov said: "Each of us faces the task of ensuring high living standards, peace and prosperity for our people. Personally for me this is a great responsibility before the Almighty and before the Chechen nation."