- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday tapped a little-known financial regulator as the country’s new prime minister, deepening Kremlin intrigue over who will succeed Mr. Putin when he steps down after eight years in power in March.

Viktor Zubkov, 65, replaces technocrat Mikhail Fradkov, who has kept a low profile since his surprise elevation to the government’s second-highest official post in March 2004.

Like Mr. Fradkov, the new prime minister is not seen by Russian political analysts as a candidate to succeed Mr. Putin in next spring’s presidential vote, even though Mr. Putin used the prime minister’s job as a steppingstone on his way to replacing Boris Yeltsin in 2000.

But some Kremlin watchers saw the selection as a blow to First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a close Putin ally whom many saw as the front-runner to win the president’s endorsement. Russian newspapers, which had been predicting a government shakeout, had pegged Mr. Ivanov as the likely new prime minister.

The speculation, reminiscent of Soviet succession fights, rose as Mr. Putin faces increasing criticism from the West and Russian opposition parties over the Kremlin’s domination of the levers of economic and political power.

Fueled in part by high energy prices and surging domestic economy, Mr. Putin also has pushed a more confrontational policy with Europe and the United States. He recently suspended Russia’s observance of a major conventional arms treaty and sharply criticized U.S. plans for a missile defense shield based in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Putin has refused to anoint his chosen successor. A Putin endorsement is seen as virtually guaranteeing success in the 2008 election.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Mr. Zubkov’s nomination “an internal, domestic political event” in Russia, while acknowledging U.S. “concerns” over recent moves by Mr. Putin’s government against political liberties.

Russian parliamentary elections will be held Dec. 2, followed four months later by the presidential vote. Russia’s parliament, dominated by parties tied to the Kremlin, is expected to endorse Mr. Putin’s choice as early as tomorrow.

“We hope the upcoming elections will take place in a climate that is free, fair and transparent,” Mr. McCormack said. “But I don’t detect that today’s events will affect that one way or another.”

Leading candidates to succeed Mr. Putin are thought to include Mr. Ivanov, a former minister of defense; fellow Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; state railroad administrator Vladimir Yakunin; and Sergei Naryshkin, deputy prime minister for foreign economic affairs.

Mr. Putin himself suggested that the prime minister change was part of a plan to get the government ministries in place to ensure a smooth transition.

“You might be right that we must think about how to structure the government so that it better suits the pre-election period and prepares the country for what will happen after the parliamentary and presidential elections,” he told the Interfax news agency in accepting Mr. Fradkin’s resignation yesterday.

Mr. Zubkov, an economist by training who once oversaw collective farms during the Soviet era, was named head of Russia’s chief financial watchdog agency in 2001.

Like many of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, he began his career in the St. Petersburg region, and served for a time in the early 1990s as Mr. Putin’s aide in the St. Petersburg municipal government.

But he is also well-connected: His colleagues in the St. Petersburg municipal government included Mr. Medvedev, Mr. Naryshkin and Alexey Kudrin, the country’s finance minister. Mr. Zubkov’s daughter is married to Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, a likely candidate in March, told reporters in Russia that Mr. Zubkov’s selection showed that “it is obvious Mr. Putin simply cannot resolve the successor problem.”

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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