- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

From combined dispatches

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin rewrote the rules for Russia’s closely watched presidential succession yesterday, naming his new prime minister as one of just a few people with a chance of replacing him in the Kremlin next spring.

Mr. Putin also made clear to a group of visiting foreign academics he will remain a political force after 2008 and signaled he might return to the presidency after 2012, said an analyst who met him.

“Mr. Putin is not planning to disappear into the fog,” said Ariel Cohen, one of the Russian scholars Mr. Putin met in the southern city of Sochi yesterday, according to Reuters news agency.

Mr. Cohen, senior researcher at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the academics asked Mr. Putin whether he plans a return after 2012, the end of his successor’s first term.

“He said it depends, he said he cares about the stability of Russia,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Putin must step down next year because the constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms in office. But it does not stop him from coming back after his successor’s first term ends in 2012, or possibly sooner.

Mr. Putin anointed Viktor Zubkov as a strong candidate hours after parliament approved his nomination as prime minister. Mr. Zubkov’s lightning-fast ascent from obscurity is seen as part of the Russian leader’s plan to maintain tight control during a bruising election season and keep a hand on Russia’s reins after he steps down.

“A year, a year and a half ago, people were saying that we have an empty field and there’s nobody to choose from. Now they name a minimum of five people who can realistically aspire to be elected president of Russia in March 2008,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Putin as saying.

“If another realistic candidate emerges, then Russian citizens will be able to choose among several people,” he said. And Mr. Putin said Mr. Zubkov “said the right thing” when he told journalists a day earlier that he will not rule out a presidential bid if he does a good job as prime minister.

The president stopped short of endorsing Mr. Zubkov over any other potential successor. But he mentioned nobody else by name and praised the new prime minister at length as a hardworking, honest man who has worked productively throughout a diverse career.

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