For a few hours Wednesday, Russia’s political establishment thought it was about to learn the likely answer to the most talked-about question hanging over this country: Who will succeed President Vladimir V. Putin if he steps down, as expected, next spring?
But Putin’s selection of an obscure figure to fill the post of prime minister suggested that he was unwilling to tip his hand -- and relegate himself to the role of lame duck.
Early in the day, Putin accepted Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov’s resignation, which both men said was necessary to set the stage for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Commentators rushed to suggest that Fradkov’s replacement would probably become the next president. Many expected Putin to choose Sergei B. Ivanov, a first deputy prime minister seen as particularly close to the president.
But Putin made an unexpected choice: Viktor Zubkov, 65, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, a market watchdog aimed at fighting financial crimes.
The appointment, expected to be confirmed Friday by the lower house of parliament, appeared to put Zubkov, who had not been considered a candidate, in the running for the presidency but falls short of making him the favorite.
Zubkov’s choice left observers guessing as much as ever about who might be the next president, given that Putin is expected to have a major say in the matter. The decision also left Putin in position to continue calling the shots in coming months without fear of power drifting toward a presumed successor.
Just Monday, Putin had used a sports analogy as a reminder that he had no intention of loosening his grip on the reins of power before leaving office.
“In our country, nearly everyone loves ice hockey,” Putin said in televised remarks during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. “We know the way real professionals play -- until the last second.
“I will work in the same way,” he said, “and will do whatever I can so that all the ministers, the whole government and the presidential administration work precisely in this style.”
Putin consistently enjoys popularity ratings above 70% in polls, but the constitution requires him to step down at the end of his second term, in spring. Most observers believe that voters, heavily influenced by state-controlled television, will endorse whomever Putin selects as his preferred successor.
Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, a Moscow think tank, said Zubkov’s appointment reinforced the sense that the 54-year-old Putin intends to remain Russia’s preeminent politician for years.
Although the constitution bans the president from serving more than two consecutive terms, it does not block a former two-term president from returning to office after a break. That means Putin could be reelected immediately if his successor stepped down, or that he could run for the presidency in 2012.
If Putin is looking for a short-term caretaker successor, Zubkov could be a good candidate.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the era of Putin is far from being over. Maybe it is only seriously beginning now,” Nikonov said. “And maybe these decisions mean that we could see Putin returning as president in 2012 to lead the country for at least another eight years.”
Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime ministers in Fradkov’s outgoing Cabinet, had been seen as most likely to win Putin’s nod.
Putin asked Fradkov and his ministers to stay on until the new prime minister was confirmed and a new Cabinet formed. If Ivanov and Medvedev are reappointed as first deputy prime ministers, they may still be viewed as front-runners.
Some observers, however, believe that Putin’s decision has damaged Ivanov politically, since expectations were high that he was about to become the heir apparent. An unnamed official source had been quoted in a news report early Wednesday as saying he would replace Fradkov.
Ivanov’s failure to win the post “is a colossal blow to his prestige,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank.
“The leak from the Kremlin about Sergei Ivanov becoming the new prime minister was a classic example of misinformation at which President Putin is so very good,” he said. “A majority of top state officials this morning were confident that Ivanov would replace Fradkov as premier. Putin alone knew it was not true.
“People who saw Ivanov today after the decision was made final say that he was really a sorry sight.”
Zubkov has been close to Putin ever since they worked together in the foreign economic department of the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s.
“Formally, he was Putin’s subordinate, but in fact he was far more experienced at bureaucracy,” Belkovsky said. “He was 11 years older than Putin and taught him lots of bureaucratic skills. . . . Zubkov is the only one among the current top officials whom Putin can regard as his teacher and instructor.”
Some observers noted that Zubkov’s experience enforcing tax and financial laws means he could hold potentially damaging information about other members of the political elite. Such knowledge -- referred to in Russia as kompromat, for “compromising material” -- could be useful in the event of Kremlin infighting or a need to enforce political stability during the presidential transition.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Name: Viktor Zubkov
Position: Nominated to be prime minister of Russia
Ties to President Vladimir V. Putin: At Putin’s side since early 1990s, when both worked in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. Member of Putin administration since 2001, heading a financial watchdog agency. “Most importantly, he is a member of Putin’s inner circle,” said Yevgeny Volk, with the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation think tank. Zubkov, he said, is one of about 20 people invited to Putin’s birthday parties.
Biography: Born Sept. 15, 1941, in Arbat, a village in the Ural Mountains. First job was as a fitter in a factory. Went on to qualify as an economist specializing in agriculture and worked for 18 years on state farms in the St. Petersburg region. Joined the city administration in 1985, serving for a time in the foreign economic department, where Putin worked. Head of Federal Financial Monitoring Service since 2001, playing a major role in combating money laundering. Married, with a daughter who is the wife of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Source: Times wire services