Putin gets new right-hand man as chief of staff exits

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A month before parliamentary elections, President Vladimir Putin has replaced his long-time ally Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff, appointing a low-profile former diplomat in his place on Friday.

Putin named Anton Vaino, 44, to the important post which involves drafting laws for the president to submit to parliament, monitoring their enforcement and conducting analysis of domestic and foreign affairs for the president.

Personnel changes in the Kremlin’s inner circle are rare and Putin is often described as valuing loyalty above all else. The latest switch follows a reshuffle of regional leaders last month.

Analysts offered contrasting views as to whether Ivanov had been pushed out of the Kremlin, with some seeing his exit as a sign that Putin was nervous ahead of elections and others saying Ivanov, 63, had been looking to quit for some time.

Timothy Ash, a strategist at Nomura bank, suggested Putin could have removed Ivanov because Putin was worried about his popularity ahead of the elections. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party is expected to win, but not as easily as usual because of an economic crisis caused by low oil prices.

“There has been evidence that Putin has been further concentrating power, with the creation of a presidential guard, and I think this is further evidence of this – removing potential rivals,” Ash said.

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Ivanov’s departure follows the high-profile exits of the head of ailing state development bank VEB in February and the boss of Russian Railways last year.

Putin, in a Kremlin meeting shown on state TV, told Ivanov that the pair had worked well together.

“I understand your desire to move to another sphere of work,” Putin said, saying Ivanov would become his special representative for ecology and transport.

Ivanov said he had asked Putin to move him on from the post after four years and that he had done the job for four years and eight months.

Vaino, his replacement, used to work in the Russian Embassy in Japan and has worked as deputy head of the Kremlin administration since 2012.

He is not a household name in Russia, unlike Ivanov, who was spoken of as a possible presidential contender in 2008 and worked as Putin’s deputy when Putin ran the FSB security service.

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“Vaino is not the worst appointment, but he is not a political figure,” former Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky said, noting that Ivanov would keep his seat on Putin’s Security Council and hence a degree of influence.

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said Vaino was less of a hawk than Ivanov and had a reputation as a good manager.

Rumours about Ivanov’s departure had been circulating for some time because he had suffered health problems after the death of his son, Gallyamov said. Ivanov’s son drowned off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2014.

Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche