By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, AP
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nominee for premier has voiced presidential ambitions amid rising speculation that his appointment could be part of an ingenious plan by the incumbent to retain control over the government after he steps down next year.
Viktor Zubkov, a little-known chief of Russia’s financial intelligence agency, was not seen as a potential candidate to succeed Putin until the president named him in a surprise move that shocked the nation’s political class.
The lower house, the State Duma, is expected to quickly confirm Zubkov for the job on Friday.
The ascent of Zubkov, who turns 66 this weekend, led to suggestions he might have been chosen as a loyal caretaker who could keep the presidential seat warm and then step down to let Putin return.
Asked whether he would be president, Zubkov said Thursday: “If I achieve something in this position, I do not rule out this scenario.”
He would hardly have made the blunt statement without Putin’s nod. In contrast, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, the two first deputy premiers previously seen as top presidential contenders had invariably dodged questions about their presidential ambitions.
Zubkov has kept a low profile during the six years he headed the federal agency combating money-laundering, but he has maintained close personal ties with Putin since the early 1990s when he worked as his deputy in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.
Kremlin-watchers said that Zubkov has been among a narrow circle of people regularly invited to Putin’s birthday parties. Putin reportedly has retained a deep personal respect for Zubkov, a Soviet-era bureaucrat who helped him learn the basics of administrative work in St. Petersburg.
With next March’s presidential election looming, the nation’s political elite was anxiously waiting for Putin to name a favored successor. The immensely popular Putin cannot seek a third consecutive term because of a constitutional limit, but his blessing is considered sufficient for a hand-picked candidate to easily win the vote.
Putin himself was little-known when he began his swift ascent to power, and the Kremlin’s tight control over politics and the media could be turned – as with Putin – into tools that could swiftly groom a relatively obscure person for top office.
State-run television pumped up Zubkov’s image, depicting him as honest and hardworking and broadcast his lengthy interview in which he talked about his slow rise through the ranks of Soviet agricultural bureaucracy in the 1970s. “This experience was useful: a person who worked in farming wouldn’t fear to work even in the intelligence,” he joked wryly.
Putin said that he plans to retain influence over the nation’s political scene after he steps down, and has not ruled out a future presidential bid.
Analysts said that by naming an obscure figure like Zubkov, Putin demonstrated to the Kremlin clans that he would continue calling all the shots all the way up to the presidential vote.
“Zubkov is a person whom the president trusts, and he has maintained an equal distance from the Kremlin’s centers of influence,” said Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. “Putin shows he isn’t a lame duck and would maintain full control.”
Zubkov, who is much older than most members of Russia’s political elite and appears to be less ambitious than Ivanov or Medvedev, could make a more convenient interim figure in case Putin was planning a comeback.
“If he does become Putin’s successor, it will likely be for only one term. Then Putin will say, ‘I am ready to return,”‘ Communist lawmaker Viktor Ilyukhin said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Others speculated that Putin may even decide to return earlier.
“Zubkov could be a convenient president who would give up power in Putin’s favor in half-year or a year,” analyst Mikhail Delyagin said in a commentary.
Sergei Ivanenko, a leading member of the liberal Yabloko party, said that the appointment of Zubkov would “help Putin preserve his power.” “In fact, that means a third term,” he said.
Some analysts said that Zubkov’s rise signaled that Putin did not have full trust in either Ivanov or Medvedev, who have been groomed by the Kremlin as potential successors over the past year.
“It’s hard to imagine Sergei Ivanov, for example, eagerly leaving the president’s seat if he’s elected,” Andrei Ryabov said.
Ryabov warned, however, against immediately discarding Ivanov and Medvedev, saying that either of them – or a new hand-picked candidate – could emerge as another presidential contender after the parliamentary elections in December.
Ryabov said that Putin could give his blessing to more than one candidate to create a semblance of competition, while other analysts said such a move was unlikely because it would disorient the bureaucracy.
The main pro-Kremlin party, the United Russia, was expected to hold its congress in early October, and political pundits were waiting for Putin’s speech there to provide guidelines regarding his intentions.