Vladimir Putin is known for doing the unexpected, so perhaps it was not surprising when he picked Viktor Zubkov, 66, an obscure political figure as prime minister of Russia last week.
Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, was swiftly confirmed by the Duma, 381-47, with eight abstentions. He replaces Putin’s previous hand-picked prime minister Mikhail Fradkov.
The influential daily Viedomosti had leaked the news of Fradkov’s impending resignation, but predicted that vice-premier Sergei Ivanov would be appointed in his place. According to the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, Ivanov is an old associate of Putin’s from their hometown St. Petersburg, and connected through their work for the KGB. He has often been named as a possible hand-picked successor to Putin.
Other possible successors speculation has revolved around include Dmitry Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and chairman of the energy giant Gazprom’s board of directors, and Vladimir Yakunin head of state-run Russian Railways company. All are close associates of Putin from the St. Petersburg group.
Zubkov is also a close associate of Putin’s from St. Petersburg and served under Putin in the city’s foreign relations committee from 1992 to 1993.
Zubkov’s appointment as prime minister came just as he passed the mandatory retirement age for civil servants. Before his appointment, the St. Petersburg Times reported rumors that he might get a Federation Council seat from the Leningrad region, a job sometimes described as a “featherbed” for retired government officials.
Because Zubkov is relatively old, untainted by any corruption scandal and not known to be connected to the former KGB, it is widely presumed that he was chosen to be a caretaker until the presidential election in March. Many speculate that he will run for president and hold the office for a single term until Putin can reenter politics.
The Russian constitution prohibits a president from succeeding himself more than one consecutive term, but does not limit the number of non-consecutive terms a president may serve in his lifetime.
Though Zubkov does not rule out running for president, Andrei Sitov, of the Washington bureau of the Russian news agency TASS, cautions against guessing anything. Putin likes to be unpredictable and might not do something simply because everyone assumes he will, he said.
Sitov met Zubkov in Panama in 2003 and interviewed him at length. At the time Zubkov had just assumed the position at the FFMS and was tasked with getting Russia off the Financial Action Task Force blacklist.
FATF is an inter-governmental body formed to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. According to Sitov, Zubkov not only got Russia off the black list but got his country membership in the international body.
Sitov describes Zubkov’s personality as warm, open and accessible, untypical of powerful office-holders in Russia. He described him as “more like an American CEO” in manner.
When Sitov interviewed Zubkov, he said that Zubkov answered every question, even if it was only a “yes” or “no.” If he didn’t want to go into something, he told you so, Sitov said. He found Zubkov to be straightforward and unevasive. When asked his opinion on cooperation with the United States in FATF, Sitov said that Zubkov frankly told him that he was not entirely happy with it, and described it as a “one-way street.”
According to Zubkov, Russia gave the US and FATF information on terrorist financing that lead to some arrests, but could not get information they thought the US had about money flow to Chechnya through an Islamist charity.
Sitov said his impression of Zubkov was of a man both down-to-earth and sophisticated. In his career track he started as a repairman in a factory and went on to study agricultural economics. He rose to become a manager of state farms around St. Petersburg, a position he held for 18 years. Afterwards he joined the city government in 1985 and served as a federal tax official from 1993 to 2001. In 1998 he ran unsuccessfully for governor of the Leningrad region. Russia has since ended popular election of governors.
When asked if Zubkov was affiliated with the siloviki, the powerful association of politicians from the communist-era military and security services who form a de facto higher inner cabinet, Sitov said that he didn’t know. He said he hoped that if Zubkov is not affiliated with any faction he will be able to fight corruption.
Jaroslav Romanchuk, vice-president of the opposition United Civil Party in the former Soviet republic of Belarus was more pessimistic. “Zubkov is part of the old KGB crowd and could be worse than Putin in taking Russia away from capitalism and liberalism” he said.
So who is Viktor Zubkov?
Recent history has shown that with every change of leadership in Russia, Americans desperately want to believe that a moderate liberal, pro- or at least not anti-American leader has taken over.
Analyzing the Russian power structure is difficult at best. Estimates of the number of factions within the inner circle of power range from two to ten, and guesses about who belongs to which differ.
What we can state with some confidence is: the top leadership of the Russian government is a small group bound together by ties of blood, marriage and long-term association. Zubkov himself is the father-in-law of the just-resigned defense minister. They consider their own interests identical with the nation’s and ideologically tend to be slavophillic nationalists, identifying the Russian nation with ethnic Russians, and strongly resentful of Russia’s fall from superpower status.
Though Russia has adopted many of the forms of parliamentary democracy, the presidential succession has so far been a matter of the incumbent anointing his own successor. Hopes for a free, prosperous and pro-Western Russia rely on the powerful coming to see their own self-interest bound up with suppressing corruption, a free market economic policy, a legal structure that recognizes human rights and protects property, and eventually, broader participation in the governing process.
As to whether the new prime minister will attempt to move Russia further in this direction, we will also caution against guessing.