Russia's lower house of parliament confirmed President Vladimir Putin's choice as prime minister on Friday, approving the previously obscure official Viktor Zubkov in a vote whose result was a foregone conclusion in the Kremlin-controlled chamber.
Lawmakers voted 381-47 to confirm Zubkov, whose surprise nomination stunned Russians and deepened the uncertainty surrounding Putin's expected choice of a favored successor and his plans for the country following the end of his term next spring. Eight legislators abstained.
When Putin dismissed premier Mikhail Fradkov on Wednesday, Russians had widely expected him to be replaced with a more prominent figure — most likely former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov — in a signal that the person tapped would run as his chosen successor in the March presidential vote.
Clear as mud?
But Putin's choice of Zubkov has instead muddied the political waters. And the 65-year-old nominee added to the intrigue Thursday by saying he would not rule out a presidential bid — a remark he would have been unlikely to make without Putin's approval.
The popular Putin is constitutionally barred from seeking a third straight term. He has said that he plans to retain influence over the nation's political scene after he steps down, and has not ruled out a presidential bid in 2012.
If anything, the surprise choice of Zubkov served as a further indication that Putin was showing the country, especially Kremlin factions jockeying for position ahead of the election, that he is no lame duck and will continue calling the shots.
"As always, the Russian president chose the option that gives him the maximum possible freedom to maneuver," Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said in a commentary Thursday in the newspaper Vedomosti.
Zubkov is much older than both Ivanov and another official seen as a front-runner, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and could make a more convenient interim figure if Putin were planning a comeback in 2012 or even sooner.
In such a role, Zubkov "would not impose his will upon Putin's team, which would remain in power. And his age means that he would hand over power at any moment as ordered," Mark Urnov, president of the Expertiza think tank, said in a comment Friday in the daily Kommersant.
Loyal to Putin
Zubkov is also seen as loyal and trusted by Putin, who was his boss in the early 1990s in the St. Petersburg mayor's office.
Zubkov has been the longtime head of the Federal Financial Monitor Service, known as Russia's financial intelligence agency. Analysts say Zubkov's experience could help Putin keep control of financial flows to parties and interest groups amid campaigns for December elections to the State Duma — the lower parliament house — and the presidential vote.
Addressing lawmakers before the vote, Zubkov said he would implement policies voiced by Putin — seeking to ensure economic and social stability and modernize the economy, while also working to boost the defense industry and Russia's struggling farms. He said the government should work more effectively, and suggested that some unpopular Cabinet ministers could be dismissed.