Putin names new envoy for far east region after floods

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin on Saturday named a new envoy to oversee Russia's far eastern region, yet denied the switch was linked to his call for an inquiry into local officials' handling of serious floods there. Putin appointed Yuri Trutnev, a Kremlin aide, as deputy prime minister and personal envoy to the region in a step that concentrates his power, and further sidelines his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The announcement came as Putin wrapped up a regional tour in which he visited cities on the Amur River in eastern Siberia that have suffered the worst flooding in more than a century, causing damage estimated at $1 billion. Although Putin has ordered an investigation into the floods, he went out of his way to exonerate the outgoing Viktor Ishayev, first appointed on his return to the presidency in May 2012. Trutnev, a 57-year-old political heavyweight who is a senior figure in Russia's party of power, controlled the award of oil and gas exploration licenses as a cabinet minister from 2004 to 2012, when he moved with Putin to the Kremlin. "This was a planned change," Putin told a meeting in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, thanking Ishayev "for everything that you have done". Putin, 60, has launched a drive to develop Russia's sparsely-populated far east, which lags China's more economically dynamic region of Manchuria to the south. He hosted an Asia-Pacific summit in Vladivostok last year but the event was widely criticized for wasteful spending on prestige projects - including building a $1 billion bridge to a previously uninhabited island where leaders met. (Reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Writing Douglas Busvine; editing by David Evans)