Russian President Vladimir Putin has picked an unknown official to be the country's new prime minister. The surprise nomination has confounded Russians trying to guess who will succeed the highly popular president next year.
Putin was widely expected to nominate a new prime minister ahead of key parliamentary elections in December. So there was no astonishment when state television showed Mikhail Fradkov in Putin's Kremlin office, asking to step down after 3 1/2 years.
"Understanding the political processes going on today," Fradkov said, "I think it would be right on my part to take the initiative and leave my position as prime minister."
Fradkov said he wanted Putin to have full freedom to make decisions. The outgoing prime minister was widely seen as a powerless figure who carried out the Kremlin's bidding. Putin said he fully agreed with Fradkov, and praised him for achieving "very positive results."
"But maybe you're right. Maybe we all have to think together about how to arrange the structure of authority so it corresponds to the election season and prepares the country for the post-election period," Putin said.
The rest of the cabinet must also step down with Fradkov.
Many believed he had to make way for one of the main candidates to succeed Putin next March, when the authoritarian president's two-term limit expires. Whoever Putin names as his favored successor is almost certain to win an election, and the prime minister's post was seen as the best springboard for the top job.
But hours after Fradkov handed in his resignation yesterday, Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov made a shocking announcement.
Former Farm Manager
Gryzlov said Putin's choice for the new prime minister is Victor Zubkov, the virtually unknown head of the government's financial market watchdog, which fights financial crimes such as Russia's rampant capital flight.
The 65-year-old was a communist collective farm manager for nearly 20 years. He met Putin when both worked for the St. Petersburg city administration in the early 1990s.
Analysts were dumbfounded. Many believe Zubkov is just a temporary placeholder who will be replaced after December's parliamentary elections. But analyst Kiril Rogov said Zubkov may become the next president.
"It will be a new model of government, under which the president will be a figurehead and real power will be transferred to another state agency, of which Putin may retain control ... until he can run again in four years or even sooner," Rogov said.
Putin Passes Over Ally
The prime minister's post was expected to go one of two first deputy prime ministers ... including Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer who is close to Putin and has been seen as the top contender to succeed him. Ivanov appeared to put a brave face on Zubkov's nomination.
"It's not a big deal. As far as Victor Zubkov's candidacy, I can say I know him well enough. He's worked his whole life quietly and determinedly. He's absolutely capable of doing the job," Ivanov said.
Parliament is expected to rubber stamp Zubkov's nomination on Friday. Whatever Putin's reasons for picking the obscure bureaucrat, the president is keeping his cards close to his chest. He wants to show he's no lame duck — and that he remains very much in control of Russian politics.