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Putin minister pick does not rule out a run for presidency

Some analysts believe newly nominated prime minister Viktor Zubkov (center) may be Vladimir Putin's key to keeping power. Some analysts believe newly nominated prime minister Viktor Zubkov (center) may be Vladimir Putin's key to keeping power. (ALEXEY SAZONOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin's nominee for prime minister said yesterday that he won't rule out a run for the presidency amid rising speculation his appointment could be part of Putin's plan to retain control over the government after stepping down next spring.

Viktor Zubkov, a little-known chief of Russia's financial intelligence, was not seen as a potential candidate to succeed Putin until the president named him in a move that shocked the nation's political class.

The ascent of Zubkov, who turns 66 this weekend, led to suggestions he might have been chosen to keep the presidential seat warm and then step down to let Putin return.

Asked whether he would be president, Zubkov said: "If I achieve something in this position, I do not rule out this scenario."

Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, the two first deputy premiers previously seen as top presidential contenders had invariably dodged questions about their ambitions.Zubkov has kept a low profile during the six years he led the federal agency combating money-laundering, but he has maintained close personal ties with Putin since the early 1990s, when he worked as Putin's deputy in the St. Petersburg mayor's office.

Kremlin-watchers said Zubkov has been among a narrow circle of people regularly invited to Putin's birthday parties. Putin reportedly has retained a deep personal respect for Zubkov, a Soviet-era bureaucrat who helped him learn the basics of administrative work.

With next March's presidential election looming, the nation's political elite was eagerly waiting for Putin to name a favored successor. The immensely popular Putin can't seek a third straight term because of a constitutional limit, but his blessing is considered sufficient for a hand-picked candidate to easily win the vote.

Putin himself was little-known when he began his swift ascent to power, and the Kremlin's tight control over politics and the media could be turned - as with Putin - into tools that could swiftly groom a relatively obscure person for top office.

State-run television pumped up Zubkov's image, depicting him as honest and hardworking, and broadcast a lengthy interview in which he talked about his slow rise through the ranks of Soviet agricultural bureaucracy in the 1970s.

"This experience was useful: a person who worked in farming wouldn't fear to work even in the intelligence," he joked wryly.

The lower house, the State Duma, is expected to quickly confirm Zubkov today.

Putin said he plans to retain influence over the nation's political scene after he steps down, and has not ruled out a future presidential bid.

Analysts said that by naming an obscure figure like Zubkov, Putin demonstrated that he would continue calling the shots all they way up to the presidential vote.

"Zubkov is a person whom the president trusts, and he has maintained an equal distance from the Kremlin's centers of influence," said Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "Putin shows he isn't a lame duck and would maintain full control."

Zubkov, who is much older than most members of Russia's political elite and appears to be less ambitious than Ivanov or Medvedev, could make a more convenient interim figure in case Putin intends a comeback.

"If he does become Putin's successor, it will likely be for only one term. Then Putin will say, 'I am ready to return,' " Communist lawmaker Viktor Ilyukhin said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Others speculated Putin might even decide to return earlier.

Sergei Ivanenko, a leading member of the liberal Yabloko party, said the appointment of Zubkov would "help Putin preserve his power."

"In fact, that means a third term," he said.

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