Placeholder Premier Bids Farewell to His Cabinet

APPresident Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov inspecting a tunnel on Feb. 5 that will become part of a highway that will surround Sochi by the beginning of the 2014 Olympic Games.
If his terse summing-up of his 237 days in office for television newscasts was anything to go by, Viktor Zubkov presided over his last Cabinet meeting Tuesday as prime minister much as he had his first. While stern and formally correct, Zubkov has largely been seen as a placeholder until someone more substantial came along.

Zubkov and his Cabinet will step down after the inauguration Wednesday of Dmitry Medvedev as president, ending a period that has seen the country go through two carefully choreographed national elections, a global credit crunch and seemingly unstoppable rising prices for food and other staple products.

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Zubkov holding a girl during a visit to a kindergarten in Penza on Sept. 26.

Yet, what set Zubkov apart from other so-called interim, or "technical," prime ministers, perhaps, was the particular Soviet-style managerial touch he displayed in a variety of settings.

Whether it was reprimanding Cabinet ministers on their supposed shortcomings on national television, giving a pep talk to the national football team, or giving dental advice to farmers in the Penza region, the headmasterly Zubkov style was much in evidence.

Yet on the major social and economic issues confronting the government, Zubkov merely continued the policies of his predecessor, Mikhail Fradkov, and, with the exception of inflation, made no major missteps, economists said. Nor did he oversee any revolutionary policy shifts, they added.

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First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev skiing with Zubkov at Krasnaya Polyana ski resort near Sochi on Feb. 3.

In perhaps his biggest policy drive, he backed a move to have retailers put voluntary curbs on food prices, a move that nevertheless failed to stem rampant inflation, now seen soaring past last year's official level of 12 percent.

But Zubkov will likely remain an extremely influential public figure as board chairman of the country's largest company, Gazprom, a position that he is expected to win at a shareholders' meeting in June. The government nominated him as its representative to the state-controlled company's board.

Zubkov has treated his ministers harshly in public from the very first Cabinet meeting that he chaired, often barking, "What's the matter?" In an outburst at that meeting, he sent a Finance Ministry official to the remote, far eastern island of Sakhalin after accusing the government of failing to provide adequate disaster relief in the aftermath of an earthquake there.

On his first trip to the regions as prime minister, Zubkov — a former Soviet-era collective farm boss — visited a farm's cornfield near Penza and ordered the farm director to arrange for free dental services to combine drivers right on farm premises. He made the order in front of regional business leaders and officials because, he said, he had noticed that many drivers wore steel crowns.

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Zubkov shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after signing accords in New Delhi on Feb. 12.

Zubkov may also have contributed to Russia's qualification for the Euro 2008 Football Championships this summer. Ahead of the critical qualifier, in which Russia beat England 2-1 in Moscow in October, Zubkov stomped into the Russian team's locker room to give them a dose of Soviet-style national fervor.

"We won the Great Patriotic War and were first to fly to space and, therefore, you must win today too," Zubkov told the players. "You must do everything you can."

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Zubkov eating out with Putin, Medvedev and the parliamentary speakers after voting for a new president March 2.

When it comes to economic policies, Zubkov's record is not that spectacular. But given the State Duma and presidential elections that fell on Zubkov's watch, it would have been hard to expect any steep changes, economists said.

At Tuesday's Cabinet, Zubkov admitted that inflation fueled by soaring world food prices had been a setback for the government. But he thanked his ministers, as well as lawmakers and scientists who attended Cabinet meetings, for work that "demanded all-out effort."

In the widely televised, solemn farewell, Zubkov read from a prepared statement to catalogue the global economic factors that had prevented better results in the fight against inflation.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Prime Minister-elect Zubkov meeting reporters for the first time on Sept. 13.

Economists, such as Kirill Tremasov at the Bank of Moscow and Vladimir Tikhomirov at UralSib, said they didn't blame Zubkov for the failure to tame inflation because it was driven by factors outside his control.

Mikhail Delyagin, a left-leaning economist, said the food price curbs that lasted six months were justified for only the first three, when they were needed to defuse consumer panic.

Zubkov's main achievement, the economists said, was not making any major mistakes and preventing an economic slowdown during the election season.

Mikhail Metzel / AP
Zubkov receiving flowers after his confirmation as prime minister Sept. 14.

"Elections were the main event during his term in office," said Tremasov, chief economist at the Bank of Moscow. "The main thing is that there were no sharply negative steps."

Tikhomirov, chief economist at UralSib, said Zubkov was wary of trying policy initiatives but had worked efficiently. "He coped with his duties well," Tikhomirov said. "There was no slack, no freeze in the government's work."

In one of its last decisions, Zubkov's Cabinet on Tuesday approved steeper electricity price hikes and delayed the liberalization of the internal gas market.

Alexander Saverkin / Itar-Tass
Zubkov speaking with ministers ahead of a Cabinet meeting on March 25.

After President Vladimir Putin tapped Zubkov for the prime minister's job in September, Zubkov promised an anti-corruption drive, but it produced few results. The highest-profile arrest, that of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak on charges of attempted fraud in November, was widely seen as part of a politically motivated campaign aimed against his boss, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin.

Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, echoed economists in saying Zubkov had proved to be a transitional figure. But initially, Putin hoped that Zubkov might succeed him as president, Bunin said.

Even as the State Duma considered his candidacy for prime minister, Zubkov said he would not rule out a tilt at the presidency. "If I achieve something in the post of prime minister, then such a possibility should not be ruled out," he said when asked if he would run.

But Putin was disappointed with Zubkov because of his Soviet approach to handling state affairs, Bunin said. Zubkov "spent his first days in office visiting farms and demonstrating his Soviet management style," Bunin said.

Grigory Sysoyev / Itar-Tass
Zubkov touring a halva factory in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, on Jan. 9.

Putin said he appointed Zubkov to prevent the government from relaxing during the election season.

Zubkov was rated satisfactory, scoring 3.16 on a scale of 1 to 5, by 1,500 respondents polled in a countrywide poll by Bashkirova & Partners published Tuesday. Most respondents said their main concern during Zubkov's time in office was rising food prices.

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Zubkov, Medvedev and Putin meeting Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko at the president's residence in Sochi on Feb. 3.