The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The deal with Zubkov

September 13, 2007

The Duma hasn’t even confirmed Viktor Zubkov as Russia’s new prime minister, and already he’s raising eyebrows. Early commentary on Zubkov pegged him as a quietly competent bureaucrat who was unlikely to make waves or alter the balance of the intra-Kremlin jockeying over succession.

But it’s so much fun to confound the pundits: today Zubkov told reporters that a run for the presidency is not off the table.

So who is this mysterious fellow?

Here’s a summary from the various bios floating around the media. Like former president Yeltsin, he’s originally from the Sverdlovsk region in the southern Urals (Sverdlovsk is once again known as Yekaterinburg). After receiving a degree in economics from the Leningrad Agricultural Institute, he was a collective farm manager in the Leningrad oblast. He first became associated with Vladimir Putin in the 1990s, when both worked for the St. Petersburg city administration. In 2001, Putin appointed him to the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which is responsible for combating money-laundering; as such Zubkov has been an important Putin ally in his campaign to reign in the oligarchs. He seems to be well-liked and respected within the business and financial community.

Putin is known to keep his St. Petersburg associates close, so that connection is unsurprising. There are no major resume gaps or foreign posting that would be suggestive of KGB service. Interestingly, Zubkov’s daughter is married to acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov; such quasi-feudal alliances aren’t that unusual in post-Soviet space, but it is suggestive of the ways in which the inner circles of power are tied to one another personally, not merely professionally.

I also think that the choice of a prime minister with clear anti-corruption credentials is no accident. Anti-corruption is a useful political stance, even if it’s selective. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, as improbable as it may seem, originally rode into office on his name as an anti-corruption crusader. Kommersant also hints that should Zubkov successfully run for president on an anti-corruption platform, no one would be surprised if Zubkov, who is currently 66, declined to seek a second term, unlike Dmitri Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov, who are both comparatively young. The Russian constitution only prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Rumors have already been floating around that Putin could seek another term in 2012. The problem is finding a successor who isn’t interested in holding onto the office as long as possible. Could Zubkov fit that bill?

In addition to his unexpected comments on his political future, Zubkov has also promised some cabinet changes. We’ll be keeping an eye on those in the coming weeks.

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