Putin names ‘better suited’ prime minister for coming election

MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin chose a little-known government official to become Russia’s new prime minister yesterday, a surprise move that set off fevered speculation over whether loyal technocrat Viktor Zubkov was being groomed to replace Putin next spring.

The move came a few hours after Putin dissolved the Cabinet of his long-serving prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, saying he needed to appoint a government better suited to the election campaign and to “prepare the country” for life after the elections.

The nomination of Zubkov, who has overseen investigations into suspicious financial transactions, caught much of the political elite off guard, which appeared to be Putin’s intention.

Most observers said they did not see Zubkov as Putin’s successor, but rather as a caretaker prime minister, perhaps to be replaced closer to the March presidential vote. Others said they considered his appointment a signal of Putin’s intention to retain control after he leaves the presidency.

In promoting Zubkov, whose nomination could be approved by the lower house of parliament as soon as tomorrow, Putin showed he is still calling the shots.

The plucking of Zubkov from relative obscurity reminded many Russians of Putin’s own ascension to power, which began when former President Boris Yeltsin suddenly named him prime minister in August 1999. After the Kremlin secured control over the lower house of parliament in elections the following December, Yeltsin again shocked the nation by stepping down on the last night of the year and naming Putin acting president.

“Here the entire nation is trying to guess who Zubkov is – a technical prime minister or something else? It was the same situation with Putin,” said Boris Nadezhdin, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces party.

Some speculated Zubkov would succeed Putin as a caretaker president, allowing Putin to return in 2012 or sooner. Zubkov, who turns 66 on Saturday, is considerably older than most Russian political leaders.