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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zubkov Coy About Presidential Aspirations

MTGryzlov following Zubkov into United Russia's lobby area in the State Duma for a meeting with reporters Wednesday.
Prime minister designate Viktor Zubkov said Thursday that he might run for president, propelling him to the forefront of debate about who will be Vladimir Putin's successor.

Zubkov, plucked by Putin from obscurity Wednesday, also said he would dismiss ministers in a revamp of the Cabinet.

"If I achieve something in the post of prime minister, then such a possibility should not be ruled out," Zubkov said when asked by reporters at the State Duma whether he would be the next president.

The two top contenders for president, acting first deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, have never hinted publicly at any desire to succeed Putin in the March vote, and Zubkov's remarks set tongues wagging.

"Zubkov would never say this without getting some kind of guarantee from Putin," said Dmitry Orlov, a political analyst.

A Kremlin spokesman, however, cautioned against misinterpreting Zubkov's words, saying he had not yet been confirmed as prime minister. "If you read [over his remarks] carefully, he never said he was going to run for president. You have to look for nuances here," said the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

Putin, traveling in the Belgorod region, offered a vague explanation of his surprise decision to nominate Zubkov. "The major motivation," he said, was a need to upgrade "the government system to avoid hitches related to big shakeups and to show that administrative and executive powers are being developed after elections."

Zubkov, who worked with Putin in St. Petersburg City Hall in the early 1990s and has headed the Federal Financial Monitoring Service for the past six years, met Duma deputies ahead of a Friday hearing expected to confirm him as prime minister.

Every Duma faction except the Communists pledged to support Zubkov.

After consultations with the factions, Zubkov, 65, entered the United Russia faction's small lobby area through a side door, followed by the party's leader, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.

"I am pleased," Zubkov told waiting reporters and camera crews, bowing his head, slumping his shoulders and looking down at their feet. A diminutive man, Zubkov wore a plain gray suit and oval glasses.

Zubkov was immediately asked by the reporters to lift his eyes and speak louder, which he did. A murmur of surprise ran through the throng when Zubkov, with a broad smile, later said he could not rule out becoming president. A reporter loudly exclaimed, with a slight note of respect, "Wow!"

Zubkov hinted that responsibilities would be redistributed in the next Cabinet and said some personnel decisions could be expected soon. "The structure of the government, I believe, is not perfect, and we will consider the issue of its members," he said.

During a meeting with Zubkov, United Russia deputies complained about acting Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, acting Culture and Press Minister Alexander Sokolov and acting Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev.

Izvestia speculated Thursday that Zubkov might replace acting Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref with Andrei Kostin, head of state banking giant VTB.

At the news conference, which lasted about 10 minutes, Zubkov said he would not join any political party. Then, closely followed by Gryzlov, he hurried out of the room, ignoring one or two questions shouted after him. In 1998, Gryzlov served as the campaign manager for Zubkov's unsuccessful bid to become Leningrad governor.

Zubkov told Duma deputies that he had learned about his nomination Tuesday, a day before acting Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov resigned, the deputies said.

Political commentators, initially stunned by the shake-up, sought to explain Thursday how Zubkov might fit into Putin's plans. A dominating view was that Putin had chosen Zubkov as a single-term successor, opening the way for Putin to serve a third term. The Constitution bars the president from serving more than two consecutive terms.

"For the Putin comeback scenario, Zubkov is an ideal candidate. At 65, he is too old to have ambitions for a second term, he has Putin's trust, and he does not participate in the power games in Putin's group," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Securing Zubkov's presidency would be easy for the Kremlin, said Orlov, analyst with the Agency for Political and Economic Communications. "If Putin now publicly announced his support of Zubkov, and the new prime minister -- who has the reputation of being a tough financial controller -- started a campaign against corruption, Zubkov would get enough public support to become president," he said.

Putin's silence about a successor indicates his lack of confidence in any of the possible candidates, and he will try to balance the chances of his favorites until the last minute, said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank.

In late August and early September, Putin toured the country and world with Ivanov, leading to an increase in Ivanov's media coverage and poll ratings. On Wednesday and Thursday, Putin visited several regions with Medvedev.

Staff Writer Anna Smolchenko contributed to this report.