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Russia: Putin's Nomination For Premier Stuns Political Elite

The choice of Viktor Zubkov surprised many both in the media and Russian politics (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Already caught off-guard by the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov today, Russia's political elite was sent reeling by the follow-up announcement that little-known Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov is President Vladimir Putin's choice to head the next cabinet.

Virtually unanimously, Russian party leaders and political analysts interpreted the choreographed resignation of the colorless Fradkov as an indication the Kremlin was ready to tip its hand as to who is viewed as the best successor to Putin in March 2008. During his televised meeting with Fradkov, Putin himself indicated the change was being enacted with the upcoming election season in mind. "Perhaps we should all think together how to build a structure of power and governance that better corresponds to the preelection period and prepares the country for the period after the [December] parliamentary elections and the March 2008 presidential election," Putin said.

Waiting For Ivanov

With Fradkov's departure, the spotlight fell on the two men who have been widely viewed as the leading candidates for the presidency, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. And the glare fell most prominently on Ivanov, who has shared the limelight repeatedly with Putin in recent weeks.

Union of Rightist Forces co-founder Boris Nemtsov told Interfax after Fradkov's resignation that "most likely, Sergei Ivanov will be named." Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told that Ivanov was the most likely choice, although other potential successors such as Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin or "several governors" might also be tapped. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky likewise named Ivanov first on his list of likely nominees. Considerable credence was given to recent rumors in the press -- rumors that seemed to be coming from the presidential administration -- that Ivanov would become prime minister.

Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Ivanenko did not name names, but was adamant the new prime minister would be the Kremlin's presidential candidate. "The new prime minister of Russia will be the candidate for president that is supported by the current head of state," Ivanenko said. "This is clearly a preelection decision and, I think, the new prime minister will be a successor, just like Vladimir Putin was eight years ago." Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov (Unified Russia) was certain that Putin's nominee to head the government would not be "an exotic variant."

Leading analysts were likewise caught flatfooted. Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovsky said, "indubitably the new prime minister will be the [Kremlin's] candidate." Political Research Center Director Igor Bunin likewise commented that "if the decision is made quickly, if a letter with a nomination for prime minister is sent to the Duma soon, that will mean that the post will go to Sergei Ivanov." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko likewise named Ivanov, saying he is at "the peak of events" in Russian political life at the moment.

Cleaning Out The Cabinet

As a result, the ensuing announcement by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov that Putin had submitted the name of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister shook the chattering classes more forcefully than Fradkov's announcement did. Zubkov, a St. Petersburg colleague of Putin's, has headed the Federal Financial Monitoring Service since it was created in February 2001. Although the government's battle against money laundering has been accelerated under Zubkov, he personally has kept a low profile and his name is not widely known.

Zubkov clearly would be a surprising -- even exotic -- choice as Putin's successor and seems to be yet another caretaker prime minister. Some analysts have predicted that the real core of the Fradkov resignation was not Fradkov himself, who was thanked and rewarded by Putin for his service, but the rest of the cabinet. Putin may use the opportunity to clear out some ministers whose work has reflected poorly on the Kremlin -- even though the policies associated with their names more likely emerged from the presidential administration than from their ministries.

Among the ministers most often named in this context are Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, and Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman. Zurabov oversaw a highly unpopular plan to convert in-kind social benefits to cash payments that brought Russians out into the streets by the millions in the fall and winter of 2005. Gref was personally criticized by Putin during a trip to Kamchatka earlier this month, and the early exit of this liberal standout in the cabinet has been predicted for months. Reiman, although a close associate of Putin's, has been connected with high-profile corruption accusations in the telecommunications sector.

When Fradkov was named prime minister in 2004, a major restructuring of the government ensued. Numerous ministries were consolidated, and the number of deputy prime ministers was sharply cut back. Although the nomination of Zubkov to head the government came like a bolt out of the blue, the real surprises may come when he presents his cabinet proposals. And on a day when guessing has proven problematic, how those changes might affect the legislative and presidential elections remains a matter of conjecture. But Putin's admonition that "we should all think together how to build a structure of power and governance that better corresponds to the preelection period" is ringing loudly in Moscow now.



Andrei Ryabov

CONNECTING THE DOTS. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, about the significance of Viktor Zubkov's nomination as prime minister.

RFE/RL: What does this unexpected decision mean? Why Zubkov, who was never mentioned before are a possible prime minister, to say nothing of a potential presidential successor?

Andrei Ryabov: First, concerning Viktor Zubkov's nomination as prime minister. There were conversations about this, although these rumors always had a peripheral character. Compared to the political heavyweights -- people in the top-10 list like [Russian Railways head] Vladimir Yakunin, [First Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev, and others -- this candidacy was, of course, not considered very realistic. I wouldn't want to start guessing, since there are a lot of possible variations. However, I am not inclined to think that this [Zubkov's appointment] suggests a successor strategy. There is, after all, too little time; this figure is practically unknown. Despite all the possibilities of the contemporary Russian propaganda machine making an unknown figure a public one... in my opinion, we aren't talking about this variant. Most likely, we are talking about a government that will, first of all, have a transitional character and which, possibly, in some key blocs or parts will be passed on to the future successor. And the future successor, most likely, will be presented a little later.

I'd return to the well-known press conference in February when Vladimir Putin said there won't be any successors; there will be candidates for the post of president of the Russian Federation. Therefore, I wouldn't rule out that at the [October 1-2] Unified Russia congress in some form or another, the candidacy of [First Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov or, perhaps, of Dmitry Medvedev will be put forward, and the current government will remain as a sort of guarantee of the position of the exiting president during the term of the new head of state. Such a scheme at present seems most likely to me, although, of course, it is nothing more than intellectual speculation.

RFE/RL: Is it possible that Zubkov's candidacy is a stopgap measure, and his nomination indicates that the Kremlin has not decided on a successor?

Ryabov: I don't think that the Kremlin has not decided on a successor. In general it seems to me that the significance of this question has become somewhat inflated. I think that much more serious is the question of the balance of interests, of the new configuration of power after 2008. Here, it would seem, agreement is far off. There are many conflicts, and it is not clear yet that these conflicts are being resolved. I don't think the candidacy of Viktor Zubkov is the candidacy that would facilitate the resolution of these problems in record time.

RFE/RL: Unlike Fradkov, Zukbov doesn't belong to the Chekist group. Does this mean that another staffing resources is being used?

Ryabov: I don't agree -- not in regard to the chekists, but in regard to, say, the equal distance of this figure from all the key political groups. There is a widespread view that the new candidate for premier is also in the sphere of contacts or, shall we say, close to some particular direction. It isn't by chance that I am making so many qualified statements because all this is, naturally, on the level of speculation. Regarding the group of the influential deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, at least, he maintains pretty good contacts with that group.