President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday replaced his long-serving prime minister with an obscure Cabinet official — a surprise move that could put him in the running to succeed Putin in next year’s presidential election.
The nomination of Viktor Zubkov, who currently oversees the government’s fight against money laundering, appeared to have caught much of the Russian political elite off-guard.
Putin had been expected to announce in December whom he would back to run for president next year — and Russia’s two first deputy prime ministers — former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and gas giant Gazprom board chairman Dmitry Medvedev — were widely considered to be the leading contenders.
“All expected successors had an awkward moment as Putin again showed that he’s a master of disinformation,” analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Stopgap or successor?
The unexpected choice left pundits guessing whether Zubkov would serve as a stopgap figure without any political weight or would be groomed as the next president. Putin is constitutionally barred from a third straight term, but could seek to return in 2012 or even earlier if his successor steps down before his term ends.
Some analysts and political figures suggested that Putin may have picked up Zubkov as a convenient figurehead to keep ruling from behind the scenes after stepping down as president.
“The appointment of a person without political face as prime minister of a great nation in this difficult time means that the president is the only source of power,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party. “The appointment is a move toward the effective extension of Vladimir Putin’s rule even after his authority formally ends.”
Sergei Ivanenko, a leading member of Yabloko, said the appointment of Zubkov resembled Putin’s own appointment as prime minister by former President Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Several months later, Putin took helm as acting president and then won his first election.
“That gives a deja vu feeling,” Ivanenko said.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, meanwhile, said Putin would be unlikely to name Zubkov as his successor and his appointment meant only that the president was still hesitant about the choice.
Putin dissolved the Cabinet of his long-serving Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov earlier in the day, saying he needed to appoint a government better suited to the election campaign and to “prepare the country” for life after the parliamentary elections on Dec. 2 and the presidential vote three months later.
State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov backed the 65-year-old Zubkov’s nomination, saying his “life path and professional activities in various fields undoubtedly allow him to lead the Cabinet of the Russian Federation.”
He said the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, would vote on the nomination Friday.
Zubkov’s position in the Cabinet was relatively obscure; the Financial Monitoring Service he headed is an arm of the Finance Ministry that investigated money laundering.
Zubkov also served under Putin when the two worked in the city administration of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. Putin has regularly tapped former colleagues from St. Petersburg to head top posts in the government.
Putin is wildly popular among Russians, having brought stability and relative prosperity to the country after the often-chaotic Yeltsin years. As a result, whoever is nominated for the presidency by Putin is expected to win easily.