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« on: September 14, 2007, 02:42:29 AM »

Russia stunned by Vladimir Putin's choice

By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Last Updated: 2:31am BST 13/09/2007

President Vladimir Putin has plunged the political future of Russia into confusion by sacking his government and appointing a virtually unknown bureaucrat as prime minister.

Dramatically passing over his powerful deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov, the Russian president awarded the position to Viktor Zubkov, the head of the country’s financial monitoring service.

The unexpected appointment raises the prospect that a bureaucrat whose name and face are almost totally unknown to the Russian public could emerge as president of the world’s largest country when Mr Putin steps down next year.

It was a classic manoeuvre by the president. Not only did the ex-KGB spy again succeed in confounding the experts, he has successfully wrong-footed the West, which will be watching the latest development in an increasingly belligerent Russia with alarm.

The appointment, which has echoes of how Mr Putin was plucked from obscurity to be named prime minister in 1999, just months before he became president, immediately prompted fresh speculation as to the Russian leader’s future intentions.

Obliged by the constitution to step down after elections next March, Mr Putin is widely thought to want to exert influence behind the scenes — possibly before attempting to mount a comeback at elections in 2012, when he will be allowed to stand again.

As an arch-loyalist and an old friend, Mr Zubkov could be exactly the kind of pliant leader that Mr Putin needs to fulfill those ambitions.

He could, some analysts suggested, even be relied upon to fall on his sword early on in his term either by engineering a crisis or by pleading ill-health — thereby allowing the extremely popular Mr Putin to return in the midst of a national emergency.

Given the murky nature of Russian politics, however, Mr Zubkov’s appointment could be nothing more than a ploy to keep opponents and supporters alike guessing.

Until today, it had widely been assumed that Mr Ivanov, an ex-KGB spy regarded as one of the Kremlin’s top hawks, or one of a handful of insiders being groomed for the top job.

With the front page of the respected newspaper Vedomosti predicting that Mr Ivanov was on the verge of being elevated, Russians crowded around television sets to hear a “special announcement” at 3.58pm expecting to hear the news confirmed.

The first part of the broadcast on state television went according to the script.

The prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, a powerless outsider never considered a contender for the succession, was shown dolefully submitting the resignation of his government to Mr Putin.

Moments later, however, Mr Putin dropped his bombshell — causing astonishment even in the corridors of the Kremlin, where all but a few officials had been kept in the dark.

“I am absolutely bewildered by this nomination,” said Mark Ournov, a leading political analyst.

“It certainly poses more questions than answers.”

In some ways, Mr Zubkov could be the president’s ideal choice of heir.

While he may seem a grey non-entity, he is also a man whose loyalty is considered so unimpeachable that Mr Putin, constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive four-year term, would be able to exert considerable influence from behind the scenes.

Mr Zubkov, who turns 66 on Saturday, served as Mr Putin’s deputy when he chaired the external relations department in the St Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s.

Mr Putin has surrounded himself with powerful cronies drawn either from his days in the St Petersburg administration in the 1990s or from the ranks of the KGB, where he served as a spy in Dresden during the previous decade.

The two groups, while loyal to Mr Putin, are often seen as being at loggerheads with each other as well as being internally divided by sub-factions competing for control over energy and mineral resources.

Mr Zubkov is considered both a powerful enough personality to keep the factions in check and a compromise figure that would be grudgingly accepted by all.

Even so, Mr Putin could be playing a double bluff.

Against Mr Zubkov is the fact that he has no name recognition among the Russian public.

There are still six months to go before the presidential election, arguably enough time to make him a household name.

Yet, analysts say, it is a risky strategy given the Kremlin’s paranoia of an unlikely electoral defeat that has led to the dramatic curbing of political freedoms in Russia since 2004.

It is therefore possible that Mr Ivanov, or one of about half a dozen other possible contenders, could still emerge as president next year.

Russia stunned by Vladimir Putin's choice

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