New prime minister: financial intelligence agent, Hero of Socialist Labor

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“Playing dumb and deception – I don’t think that’s our slogan these days!” These words, spoken by outgoing prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, have been contradicted yet again by President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected decision. According to media reports, political analysts, politicians, and Fradkov himself didn’t expect this at all. They didn’t expect that the post of prime minister would be offered to Viktor Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (FFMS).

Everything had been coming together nice and logically, says Lenta.ru: Sergei Ivanov would be the prime minister, with Dmitri Medvedev as his senior deputy. Then, from March 2008, Ivanov would be president and Medvedev would be promoted to prime minister. But things haven’t worked out that way after all. Once again, Putin has shown that attempting to predict his actions is a lost cause. His nomination for prime minister is a person who has never had a public profile until now: FFMS Director Viktor Zubkov.

The Interfax news agency reports that Zubkov himself, speaking at a meeting with the Communist faction in the Duma on September 13, said that he’d only learned of the appointment two days ago.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper notes that only now can we understand the subtext in the odd tale of how Zubkov didn’t become a Federation Council member. In March 2007, he was being considered as a candidate for the Senate, representing the Omsk regional legislature. His candidacy had already been approved by the United Russia party’s general council. But then, at the very last minute, former football player Dmitri Alenichev became the Omsk region’s senator. The reasons for this switch were never explained. According to Vremya Novostei, this indicates that President Putin must have made his decision about the fate of his old acquaintance as early as March.

The Kremlin launched a cover operation in the lead-up to Zubkov’s nomination. Federation Council sources reported on September 10 that Zubkov would become a senator for the Leningrad region. And Zubkov himself was visiting Montenegro until a day before his appointment.

Andrei Ryabov, Carnegie Moscow Center: “All the same, there was some talk of Viktor Zubkov as a candidate for prime minister. These rumors were always peripheral, certainly. Of course, his candidacy was never taken seriously, as compared to the political heavyweights who also featured in rumors: people like Vladimir Yakunin, Dmitri Medvedev, and others.”

Nevertheless, Zubkov is likely to celebrate his birthday with a new job; the Duma is scheduled to endorse his nomination on September 14, the day before his birthday. Vedomosti quotes Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying: “I’m no psychic, but I think the Duma will take a favorable view of Zubkov’s candidacy.” Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov also expressed confidence that the Duma would endorse President Putin’s nomination.

Lenta.ru notes that Zubkov is one of the St. Petersburg people. He graduated from the Leningrad Agricultural Institute and went on to work for the Leningrad branch of the CPSU, then for the taxation agencies. He served as deputy minister for taxes and duties in 1999-2001, then as senior deputy finance minister until 2004. On March 16, 2004, he was appointed to head the FFMS (known as RosFinMonitoring, or financial intelligence).

This is a prestigious position, with a great deal of responsibility. Radio Liberty reports that in this role, Zubkov managed to get Russia removed from the FATF blacklist. FATF auditors started an extensive inspection of Russian banks, checking for compliance with laws against laundering the proceeds of crime.

Zubkov was also involved in the dramatic exposure of some organizations suspected of funding terrorism. A list of these organizations was posted openly on the FFMS website. Zubkov also said that the FFMS database contains over 2.5 million reports about suspicious and dubious financial transactions in Russia.

Lenta.ru goes on to say that back in the early 1990s, Zubkov was Putin’s deputy when Putin headed the St. Petersburg government’s foreign relations committee. He is also the father-in-law of Anatoly Serdyukov – now defense minister, formerly Zubkov’s subordinate at the St. Petersburg directorate of the Taxes and Duties Ministry.

Gazeta.ru says: “Zubkov’s sudden promotion has convinced Duma members that his collective farm was the best in the USSR, his career background is perfect, his experience and skills are indisputable, and President Putin’s decision is the wisest and most appropriate decision.” Indeed, Duma members were lavishing praise on Zubkov: “his entire working life deserves a Hero of Socialist Labor award (Liubov Sliska, senior deputy Duma speaker); “he’s clean, his background is perfect, he’s pure as a bride: white dress and wedding march” (LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky); “he has a broad outlook, and he may be described as one of our party’s founders” (Deputy Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia).

So why has Putin appointed Zubkov, and why now? Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, argues in an article for Vedomosti that rivalry within the authorities over the successor issue has intensified to the point where some urgent and fundamental decisions had to be made, as early as the start of the parliamentary election campaign. The intensified competition within the regime placed its stability in doubt; a particularly unpleasant development, given that the regime is facing the ordeal of “an election without Putin.”

Makarkin maintains that Zubkov’s nomination has also changed the successor situation: “Now there’s a new source of suspense: ‘Who is Mr. Zubkov?’ He might be yet another potential successor, or the next president’s prime minister (remaining in office after 2008), or a transition figure – a prime minister to ensure economic stability during the election period.”

Gazeta.ru maintains that if Zubkov becomes the successor, he would be perfectly suited to a caretaker role in the interval before Putin’s comeback, or for the purposes of what is known as “the collective Putin” – the president’s inner circle.

Experts have long been considering this possible scenario: a “technical” president in office until 2012, then Putin being legitimately re-elected. But the sources of Gazeta.ru say that Zubkov would need a special issue to gain publicity by March 2008: this issue could be fighting corruption, which Zubkov did at the FFMS – with his ally Viktor Ivanov chairing the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Duma member Alexander Khinstein (United Russia): “Zubkov’s appointment doesn’t mean that he’ll be the successor, but he probably wouldn’t have agreed to participate in a short-term technical project. This is a very experienced professional. Zubkov’s connections with Putin go way back.”

The BBC notes that the “technical president” theory could explain why Zubkov has been appointed despite his age (he’s nine years older than Fradkov and 11 years older than Putin). Someone who’ll be 70 years old by the election of 2012 is unlikely to cling to power and use administrative resources against Putin.

Alexander Konovalov, president of the Strategic Evaluations Institute, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper that Putin might not wait until 2012: “The strategy entails electing a technical president to keep the seat warm, snoozing through a year or 18 months in office. And then an early election would be called, with another triumph for Putin. And then he’d have another two terms of at least four years each. If this is the case, the prime minister-successor shouldn’t be anything like what we have been expecting. He shouldn’t be youthful, good-looking, or vigorous. An elderly successor in poor health would be much more suitable.”

Zubkov himself isn’t ruling out the possibility of becoming a presidential contender, according to Interfax. When asked if he’ll be the next president, Zubkov said: “If I can achieve something as prime minister, I wouldn’t rule it out.”

But most Russian voters don’t know anything about Zubkov. Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center, told Gazeta.ru: “The post of prime minister isn’t a springboard to the presidency, because ordinary citizens won’t vote for Zubkov – not even if Putin asks them to do so.”

Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director of the Social Systems Institute, suggests another potential successor worth considering: the new secretary of the Security Council, whoever that may be. The appointment should be announced soon.

Badovsky also says that someone from the government – Sergei Ivanov, for example – is likely to head United Russia’s candidate list in the Duma election. And then Putin would name his successor based on the Duma election results, saying that he’s basing his choice on the preferences of voters.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, political analyst and owner of the Antikompromat online library, told Polit.ru: “The new prime minister will continue to serve as prime minister under the next president – for the first couple of years, at least. The advantage of appointing a new prime minister is the very fact that he’s new. It would be awkward for the new president to dismiss him immedately.” According to Pribylovsky, Putin needs to have his own direct and recent appointees in two key posts: president and prime minister. Then they would have an equal “credit history,” and act as counterweights to each other.

As Alexei Makarkin says in Vedomosti: “The Cabinet dismissal has shown yet again that President Putin remains the producer and director for Russia’s entire political structure… As ever, Putin has chosen the option that leaves him with maximal room for maneuver.”

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