Vladimir Putin keeps his friends in high places

Putin_1.jpgThe appointment of Viktor Zubkov as Russia’s new prime minister has intensified speculation that Vladimir Putin harbours ambitions of remaining in office beyond next year’s presidential election.Although Mr Zubkov, 65, an economist, is a member of the so-called St Petersburg set, the cabal of former KGB officers and Putin loyalists that has seized control of key levers of power at the Kremlin, no one in Russia – not even those who have heard of him – regards him as a serious contender for the presidency.

Mr Zubkov, who previously headed Russia’s federal monitoring service, has been a key figure in Mr Putin’s fight against the post-Soviet Union oligarchs who took advantage of the government’s weakness to acquire control of some of the country’s prized economic assets.

Allies of Mr Putin say that Mr Zubkov acted as a financial and economic mentor to the president, advising him on strategy to regain control of the country’s vast energy resources.

The success of this policy, which has seen former oligarchs such as the London-based Boris Berezovsky sent into exile, or jailed like former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has given Mr Putin the resources to fund the recent build-up of Russia’s military strength, a crucial part of his attempts to reassert Russian influence on the international stage.

 

Mr Zubkov’s loyalty to Mr Putin, then, is undisputed, and his appointment gives the president a reliable ally in a key government position as Russia enters the countdown to the election.

After already serving two terms as president, Mr Putin is constitutionally obliged to stand down next year, and there has been fevered speculation within the Muscovite political beltway as to who his favoured successor might be.

Even if he does stand down, Mr Putin intends to remain a powerful figure within the Kremlin and would therefore seek to influence the election result in favour of his anointed successor.

Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin’s predecessor, set a precedent when he steered Mr Putin, then a political unknown and Mr Yeltsin’s preferred candidate, towards high office in the Kremlin.

Until yesterday’s appointment, the politician deemed most likely to emerge as Mr Putin’s political heir was Sergei Ivanov, the current defence minister, whose uncompromising approach to issues such as Chechnya, Kosovo and Nato enlargement has strengthened his hand both within the St Petersburg set and the country at large.

If any high-profile changes were to be made to the government prior to the elections, most Russian observers expected Mr Putin to appoint Mr Ivanov as prime minister, just as Mr Yeltsin had placed Mr Putin in the same position in 1999 prior to standing down, leaving the way open for Mr Putin to succeed him.

The fact that Mr Putin has overlooked Mr Ivanov in favour of Mr Zubkov has raised questions about Mr Ivanov’s own political future and Mr Putin’s long-term ambitions.

If he had appointed Mr Ivanov to prime minister, then all the speculation about Mr Putin nurturing hopes of remaining in office beyond next year would have faded as an obvious succession strategy would be in place.

By appointing an anonymous technocrat with no obvious presidential pedigree, Mr Putin has prompted renewed interest in his own position, with many Russian commentators suggesting Mr Zubkov could prove a useful ally in helping Mr Putin to stay in office, if that really is his long-term objective.

Source: Telegraph

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