MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin dissolved his government Wednesday and chose an obscure Cabinet official as his new prime minister, a move widely seen as the Russian leader’s first steps in engineering a carefully controlled handover of power.
While analysts differed on whether Viktor Zubkov is Putin’s surprise choice to succeed as president when Putin steps down next spring or simply a caretaker figure, they agreed that the Kremlin’s shake-up marks the initial phase in a leadership change that is likely to be decided long before voters head to the polls.
Most Russians had never heard of Zubkov, 65, head of a government agency that combats money laundering and a close friend of Putin since they worked together in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the early 1990s.
With parliamentary elections approaching in December and the presidential contest scheduled for March, speculation about whom Putin would pick as his successor has intensified across Russia.
Two longtime members of Putin’s inner circle, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, are viewed as the clear front-runners for the job. Ivanov, once Russia’s defense minister, now oversees diversification of Russia’s economy. Medvedev once served as Putin’s chief of staff and now is in charge of improving Russian health care, schools and housing.
Some analysts said that Ivanov and Medvedev are likely to remain at the top of Putin’s list despite Wednesday’s shake-up, and that Zubkov is a transitional figure who will steward the government while competing clans in the Kremlin wrangle over Russia’s future power structure.
“He’s absolutely a transitional person who cannot become a successor,” said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Zubkov has no background to become a successor.”
At least one analyst said he believes that by naming Zubkov as prime minister, Putin has revealed his choice for a successor.
“I think we are seeing the name of the next president of the Russian Federation,” said Konstantin Simonov, an analyst with the Center for Current Politics in Moscow. “Putin thinks now is a good time to reveal his successor. It’s his style of decision-making – unpredictable.”
Zubkov succeeds Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who said he was stepping down to give the Russian president “full freedom of choice” ahead of the coming elections.
Putin is in his last year of a second four-year term. The Russian Constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive terms.
Putin and his aides have stressed that the next president will be chosen by Russian voters in March and will not be a hand-picked successor.
However, most political analysts believe Putin will select his successor behind the scenes, making a choice that reflects a continuation of his agenda for the country. Under Putin, the Kremlin has established a firm grip over Russian politics by marginalizing opposition movements and establishing control of parliament, the selection of provincial governors and national television networks.