Russian President Vladimir Putin dealt a stunning political surprise Wednesday by unexpectedly dissolving his government and nominating a virtually unknown technocrat, Viktor Zubkov, to take the post of prime minister. Under Russia's constitution, Mr. Zubkov, the head of Russia's financial watchdog agency, is now next in line to the ultrapopular Mr. Putin who must step down early next year.
Moscow's rumor mill has been overheating lately with suggestions that Putin might place his own anointed heir in the prime minister's job, much as he himself was vaulted onto the path to Kremlin leadership by a faltering President Boris Yeltsin almost exactly 8 years ago. But Wednesday's unexpected shake-up sent observers scrambling for explanations.
In televised remarks explaining his decision to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who has served for almost four years, Putin linked it to the upcoming political transition.
"The country is nearing parliamentary elections to be followed by presidential elections," Putin said. "We all need to think together about building the power and governing structure so that they can better meet the needs of the preelection period, and prepare the country for the time after parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008," he added.
But Putin's choice for premier, which will probably be approved by the State Duma this week, seems likely to intensify speculation about Putin's plans for the upcoming Kremlin succession.
"In most countries, a prime minister is a well-known person, a public politician, someone whose face the population recognizes," Boris Nadezhdin, a leader of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces party, told the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station. "But with Putin, anything is possible. So now we are all guessing about [Zubkov], whether he will be a purely technical figure or the future president."
Zubkov, a former Soviet agriculture specialist and Communist Party functionary from Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, has until now toiled in obscurity as head of the agency that oversees government finances. Few experts appear to have heard of him, but Russia's state TV described him as a "crime fighter" and crusader against official corruption.
Many expected that Sergei Ivanov, a close Putin friend and the likeliest candidate to be Putin's successor, would be nominated prime minister. It's less clear where Zubkov fits in.
"I think Zubkov will be a purely technocratic figure, like Fradkov was," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank. "I can't see him being president. Absolutely not."
But Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who tracks changes in Russia's political stratosphere, suggests that Zubkov's role may be to keep the prime minister's chair warm for Putin.
"The key question is where Putin will go after he steps down as president," she says, citing reports that Russia's constitution may be amended to strengthen the role of prime minister. "We may see quite a few more changes," in the coming months, she says.