MOSCOW – Russia's new prime minister pledged Friday to take personal responsibility for creating a smaller, more efficient government, jumping into what promises to be a politically sensitive task after the pro-Kremlin parliament overwhelmingly approved his appointment.
Mikhail Fradkov (search), a little-known bureaucrat before President Vladimir Putin (search) nominated him Monday to hold the nation's No. 2 job, sailed easily through his confirmation hearing in Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
Lawmakers voted 352 to 58 in favor of Fradkov, with 24 legislators abstaining. Fradkov needed a simple majority of 226 votes, and he does not need approval from the upper house.
Reforming the bloated, post-Soviet state bureaucracy "can help avoid ... decisions, when nobody bears responsibility for the result," Fradkov told lawmakers. He then headed to the Kremlin to meet with his boss, who is running for re-election on March 14.
In that race, Ivan Rybkin (search), a Putin critic, dropped out of the contest Putin is expected to win in a landslide.
"I am withdrawing my candidacy, I will not participate in this farce," Rybkin told a news conference after returning from a three-week trip abroad following a murky incident in which he went missing for days and claimed he was the victim of foul play.
Russia's economy has grown steadily during Putin's first term, in large part thanks to high world oil prices, but about a fifth of the country's 144 million citizens still live below the poverty line.
Putin nominated Fradkov, 53, after he stunned the nation by firing longtime Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov less than a month before the presidential election.
Some of the orders may be unpopular. Fradkov pledged to reorganize the government by cutting the number of ministries, saying that there will be "significantly fewer" than the 23 that exist now and that he will have only one deputy prime minister — there are now several.
He said about a quarter of the functions carried out by the government are unnecessary or redundant.
Fradkov will have to balance the competing groups in Putin's inner circle as he embarks on his restructuring. The ex-security service and military officials, called the siloviki, are one of the most prominent.
But Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Research think tank, said they share influence with the economic liberals and those from Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg who often shape the president's political agenda.
"For Putin, it is probably most important that Fradkov is a neutral guy, that he doesn't belong wholly to any one crowd," said Masha Lipman, an analyst with Moscow's Carnegie Endowment.
Fradkov, who spent most of his years in the foreign trade sector but also served as a former head of the tax police, has given few hints of his concrete plans since returning from Brussels, where he was serving as envoy to the European Union.
Nikolai Kharitonov, a Communist lawmaker and presidential candidate, said the pro-Kremlin United Russia members, whose support for Fradkov guaranteed his confirmation, were "hastily praising a person they hardly know."
Dmitry Rogozin, a nationalist lawmaker who supports Putin, also said after the vote that many questions remain.
"There is still no serious talk about the country's future," he said. "There is still no answer as to what we are building — capitalism or socialism."