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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Says 5 Contenders in Race

President Vladimir Putin said Friday that newly confirmed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov could stand for president, boosting the political chances of a man who was until last week known only to a narrow circle of finance professionals.

And in his clearest signal yet about the shape of March's presidential elections, Putin also said that Zubkov was one of five contenders to succeed him as president.

"Zubkov, like any Russian citizen, can run for the presidency," Putin told members of the Valdai Discussion Club, a group of Russian and foreign academics and journalists, in Sochi at its annual meeting with the president. "Zubkov said he does not rule out running [for the presidency]. I think that was a calm and balanced answer."

Putin was referring to a remark made by Zubkov on Thursday. None of the other politicians tipped as possible successors to Putin has to date spelled out explicit plans to run for the presidency.

Political analysts said that Zubkov would not have dared to make the suggestion without Putin's blessing. Some of them said that this might be another Kremlin decoy to further cloud the succession strategy, however.

"Now, at least five people are named who can really stake their claim to be elected president in March 2008. Well, if another real candidate appears, then the Russian people will be able to choose among several people," Putin said, without naming any of the five possible options.

Zubkov's nomination Wednesday came as a puzzling and surprising move.

By Thursday, political analysts had added Zubkov to their list of potential presidential candidates, while Putin's indirect endorsement, which no other candidate has ever received, has made the likelihood of Zubkov standing stronger yet.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Zubkov had already become the frontrunner, surpassing acting First Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, who have been intensely groomed for months as potential presidential successors.

Putin might be opting for a scenario in which he would not anoint a single successor to avoid charges of trampling on democratic procedures, but instead would offer voters the choice between three or four loyal followers instead, said Sergei Mikheyev, of the Center for Political Technologies.

"And it is possible that after eight years of an active and relatively young Putin, Russia's cautious voters would prefer aged and conservative Zubkov over the younger and dynamic Medvedev and Ivanov," said Dmitry Orlov, an analyst at the Agency for Political and Economic Communications. "Dispersing support behind such different candidates would be rational for Putin at the moment."

Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that the uncertainty over Putin's successor might become clearer after United Russia held its party conference on Oct. 2, when the top names on its federal ticket are expected to be announced.

"Whoever is there with [party leader Boris] Gryzlov and [Emergency Situations Minister Sergei] Shoigu could claim more legitimacy than others as a future Russian president," she said.

Zubkov said Thursday that he would not join any party. The law does not preclude him from running on a party ticket in the Duma elections, however.