- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin“s nominee for prime minister said yesterday that he won”t rule out a run for the presidency amid rising speculation that his appointment could be part of Mr. Putin”s plan to retain control over the government after stepping down next spring.

Viktor Zubkov, a little-known chief of Russia”s financial intelligence, was not seen as a potential candidate to succeed Mr. Putin until the president named him in a move that shocked the nation”s political class.

The ascent of Mr. Zubkov, who turns 66 this weekend, led to suggestions that he might have been chosen as a loyal caretaker who could keep the presidential seat warm and then step down to let Mr. Putin return.

Asked whether he would be president, Mr. Zubkov said, If I achieve something in this position, I do not rule out this scenario.

Analysts say he would hardly have made such a blunt statement without Mr. Putin”s nod. In contrast, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, the two first deputy prime ministers previously seen as top presidential contenders, had invariably dodged questions about their ambitions.

Mr. 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 Mr. Putin since the early 1990s, when he worked as Mr. Putin”s deputy in the St. Petersburg mayor”s office.

With next March”s presidential election looming, the nation”s political elite was eagerly waiting for Mr. Putin to name a favored successor. The immensely popular Mr. Putin can”t seek a third straight term because of a constitutional limit, but his blessing is considered sufficient for a hand-picked candidate to easily win the vote.

State-run television pumped up Mr. Zubkov”s image, depicting him as honest and hardworking, and broadcast a lengthy interview in which he talked about his slow rise through the ranks of Soviet agricultural bureaucracy in the 1970s.

The lower house, the State Duma, is expected to quickly confirm Mr. Zubkov on the job today.

Mr. Putin said 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 such as Mr. Zubkov, Mr. Putin demonstrated that he would continue calling the shots all they way up to the presidential vote.

Mr. Zubkov, who is much older than most members of Russia”s political elite and appears to be less ambitious than Mr. Ivanov or Mr. Medvedev, could make a more convenient interim figure in case Mr. Putin intends 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 Echo Moscow radio.

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