Putin Nominates Obscure Official To Be Premier

Viktor Zubkov, nominated to be the premier, could end up president.
Viktor Zubkov, nominated to be the premier, could end up president. (By Viktor Chernov -- Bloomberg News)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 13, 2007

MOSCOW, Sept. 12 -- President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday nominated a longtime associate who is a largely anonymous figure to be the country's new prime minister, scrambling predictions about who will be the Kremlin-backed candidate in next March's presidential election.

Viktor Zubkov, 65, was chosen by the president hours after Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov resigned. The nomination of Zubkov, chairman of a state body that investigates money laundering, must go before the lower house of parliament, which invariably endorses Kremlin initiatives.

For months, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev, who are both first deputy prime ministers, have been widely regarded among Russians as the leading figures competing for Putin's nod for president. Promotion to prime minister for one of the men would have been seen as a signal of Putin's support and almost certain presidential election victory.

In keeping with the Kremlin's largely hidden process of decision-making, Putin offered little explanation Wednesday for the reshuffle. "We all need to think about how to build up the structure of power and governance so they are better suited to the preelection period," he said in televised remarks.

Hinting that Zubkov may be around for a while, he added that "we need to prepare the country" for the period that will follow parliamentary elections scheduled for December and next spring's presidential vote.

The outgoing Fradkov, a colorless technocrat who has loyally followed Kremlin orders since becoming prime minister in 2004, said he was resigning so that Putin would have a free hand to create a new government in the run-up to the elections.

Putin was appointed prime minister in 1999, six months before President Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve, catapulting his young charge into the presidency. Putin is required under the Russian constitution to step down after serving two consecutive terms, but would be free to run again after a successor served as president.

Many analysts here had expected Putin to follow the same scenario as Yeltsin and appoint a prime minister who could then burnish his presidential credentials in a compressed time frame that allowed little opportunity for damaging political crises or blunders.

Zubkov, however, was not on anyone's radar. His promotion baffled many analysts. Some found it hard to believe that he could eventually become president.

"Really it's a very weird appointment," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow. "Zubkov doesn't seem like a candidate fit for the presidency. This may be to divert the public from the real candidate for the moment. But Kremlin watchers now have a lot of food for thought."

Zubkov is a close ally of Kremlin officials Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin, according to a report issued last March by the Center for Current Politics in Russia. Ivanov and Sechin are part of the so-called siloviki -- former military and security services officials who people the government and state-controlled companies.

Ivanov and Sechin helped Zubkov move to Moscow from St. Petersburg, where in the early 1990s he had served under Putin on a foreign affairs committee in the mayor's office. In the 1990s, Zubkov and Putin were also neighbors in a community of country homes outside St. Petersburg where much of Putin's circle first coalesced.

The Center for Current Politics described Zubkov as a "henchman" of Ivanov and a "protege" of Sechin. He has "preserved the reputation of a man from the president's private circle," the report said.

Zubkov's son-in-law, Anatoly Serdyukov, is Russia's defense minister.

"They are all buddies," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Department for the Study of Elites at the Institute of Sociology in Moscow.

Zubkov was born in the Sverdlovsk region of central Russia. A Communist Party functionary, he graduated from the Leningrad Agricultural Institute in 1965 before being named general director of a group of collective farms.

In 1999, after Putin became prime minister, Zubkov became deputy minister of taxation for the Russian Federation. That year, he ran for governor of the Leningrad region but got only 8 percent of the vote. He later became deputy minister of finance and chairman of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, the body in charge of stamping out money laundering. In that post, he largely avoided publicity.

"Sometimes the press sounds a note of disappointment because, they say, the Financial Monitoring Service cannot boast any high-profile cases," he said in a rare interview this year with the Russian weekly Argumenty I Fakty. "I am convinced that this is good. . . . Our purpose is to quietly force dishonest participants out of the market and make the financial sector more transparent."

Despite his closeness to Putin and his ties within governing circles, Zubkov had no political profile until Wednesday. In that, he may fit into a political scenario about which there has been endless speculation here: A caretaker president would keep Putin's seat in the Kremlin warm until he returns in 2012 or sooner. The constitution would allow Putin to run again in 2012, or earlier if the successor president quit early.

"I believe Viktor Zubkov is an ideal candidate for the presidency," said Victor Ilyukhin, a Communist deputy in parliament, speaking on Echo Moskvy radio. "He will be 66 soon, so it looks like the Kremlin is implementing the scenario of Putin coming back in 2012. The fact that he is not young is very important: They have chosen somebody who definitely will not have any ambitions, whereas if there had been somebody younger he might say, 'Well, why can't I work for a second term?' "

With the Kremlin's ability to control the critical broadcast media and marginalize any opposition, Putin's choice for president is likely to coast to electoral victory next March -- even if he is little-known now. The president's choice will also be able to exploit Putin's huge popularity.

"Perhaps he is the successor, but he doesn't look like a successor," said Boris Makarenko, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

He said Zubkov's term as prime minister could also be a sop for Ivanov and Sechin if Putin chooses someone outside their circle for the presidency, because they would be working with a prime minister who is in essence their man. Or, he said, Zubkov may indeed be the presidential place-holder, allowing Putin to return, which is reportedly the fervent wish of the siloviki.

"Until further notice, either scenario is possible," Makarenko said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company