Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed his long-serving prime minister today and nominated little-known Cabinet official Victor Zubkov to replace him in a surprise move that could put Zubkov in the running to replace Putin next year.
The nomination of 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 Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and gas giant Gazprom board chairman Dmitry Medvedev – are widely considered to be the leading contenders.
After dismissing Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov – triggering the government’s automatic dissolution – Putin explained the shake-up was required to “prepare the country” for forthcoming elections. Legislative elections are to be held on December 2, and presidential elections are expected 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, could vote on the nomination as early as 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.
Some analysts suggested Putin may have picked Zubkov as a convenient figurehead to enable the Russian leader to continue ruling from behind the scenes after stepping down as president.
“The appointment is a move toward the effective extension of Vladimir Putin’s rule even after his authority formally ends,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, adding that Zubkov lacked a real “political face.”
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.
Putin is wildly popular among Russians, having brought stability and relative prosperity to the country after the often chaotic presidency of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As a result, whoever is nominated for the presidency by Putin is expected to win easily.
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.