The practice of the Russian government resigning a few months prior to the parliamentary and presidential elections has become a new Russian tradition. Such moves help reorganize the top bureaucrats faster and more smoothly. A stable presidential cabinet saves time and energy for the future president and parliament, who will hopefully not get dragged into months of shifting ministers around - one of the major pitfalls of a parliamentary government.
Sergey Ivanov or Dmitry Medvedev, both former Deputy Prime Ministers, were widely viewed as the top candidates for the job of Prime Minister. However, President Vladimir Putin pulled a major surprise from his sleeve and granted no favors to either potential successor. The new interim Prime Minister, Viktor Zubkov, whose appointment still needs to be approved by the Duma, has no real chance of becoming the next President of the Russian Federation. Therefore, the race for the presidency has become more challenging and less predictable.
New PM Viktor Zubkov
According to Bloomberg, the Russian stock market turned slightly down on the news, with many shares losing about 1% of their value. Other than this mild reaction from Russia's financial sector, not much has changed. As one of the presumed presidential candidates, now interim Deputy Prime Minister, Sergey Ivanov said "It's my fifth time becoming 'interim' -- and that's just fine. By the way the champion is Sergei Shoygu [the Russian Minister for Emergency Situations]; he has an anniversary, it's his twentieth time of being an 'interim'. Everything is just fine."
Former PM Mikhail Fradkov
Some Western media outlets reported that the "Russian government resigned," or that Putin had dissolved the entire executive branch, however, it is important to understand that this does not mean that Russia currently has no government. The declared resignation affects only the executive branch (Russian ministers), and even then, all of them woke up in the morning and went to work; 80% of the ministers are likely to keep their positions after the parliamentary elections of December 2007 and presidential elections of March 2008. Those who will not be asked to come back probably already know it, and will have to pack up, and start looking for jobs in the private sector. Prime-Minister Fradkov did his job well by starting a number of government projects dealing with strengthening private property, housing, health, education, land reform, etc. However, many of these programs remain unfinished, and will need a lot of work in the future.
Viktor Zubkov is a surprising, but nevertheless logical candidate for the position of a Prime Minister. Mr. Zubkov reportedly has no political ambitions; he will turn 66 on Saturday, September 15, reaching an age that is considered to be old by many Russians, who would like to see a younger, more energetic person as their next president. Aleksei Muhin, director of the Center for Political Information, says that "Russians won't vote for Zubkov, even if Putin asks them to do so." Mr. Zubkov has vast bureaucratic experience, and like President Putin, he started his post-Soviet political career working for the first elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak (best known these days as the father of the Russian pop princess Xenia Sobchak). Mr. Zubkov has a lot of professional and personal connections with acting ministers (Zubkov's daughter married the acting Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov in February 2007).
All of this news leaves people around the world wondering: who is going to be the next president of Russia, and who will Putin endorse? The truth is, Putin openly endorsed several people to campaign for the presidency, thus setting the precedent of picking a "multiple-choice" successor.
Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, the former Deputy Prime Ministers, and Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, are widely viewed in the Russian media as the endorsed ones. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's former chief of staff, is young and charismatic, but is not as experienced as Mr. Ivanov. Sergey Ivanov is quite the opposite -- an experienced leader, who like Putin, started his career in the security services, first in the KGB, and later in the FSB.
While many Western business leaders and diplomats who have met Ivanov have been impressed by his command of the English language and personal tastes (Ivanov is reportedly a fan of the Beatles), his performance as Defense Minister does not appeal to many Russians. Some of the worst scandals involving the so-called dedovshina (the practice of soldiers torturing and brutalizing draftees, often with their commanders turning a blind eye to the brutality) occurred on his watch, and the army reforms Ivanov started were never completed.
Vladimir Yakunin is somewhat a dark horse. Westerners don't know much about him personally, and when they think of powerful people in the New Russia, they usually start with the oil and gas giants Gazprom and Rosneft. But present day Russia-watchers often forget that, beginning in the 19th century, it was railroads that made Moscow the political and business capital of the country.
The Russian Railroads, which Mr. Yakunin is in charge of, remain one of the most important parts of Russia's infrastructure, tying together sparsely populated regions rich in mineral wealth with domestic and foreign markets. Russia has no freeway system to connect its vast regions spread out over eleven time zones, so the railroads fulfill a vital role for the army, businesses and common citizens. Under Mr. Yakunin, Russia's formerly neglected railroads have undergone significant modernization, including reconstruction, improved safety, and steady price increases (all done while carefully avoiding a political backlash). In developing a presidential campaign, Mr. Yakunin could draw on many sources of support, including other wealthy Russian businessmen who admire Yakunin's philanthropy as a patron of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Another candidate who seldom gets mentioned as a presidential contender is Dmitry Kozak, the Plenipotentiary Representative of the Russian President for the Southern Federal District of the Russian Federation. Mr. Kozak is a charismatic person, a strong leader and an experienced politician. Chechnya is one of the states in his district, and under his immediate supervision, the war-torn region has been stabilized in the last two years. Out of all the possible candidates, he has the best potential to quickly gain the trust and votes of the Russian people in a relatively short amount of time.
Given the precedent set by President Boris Yeltsin in the late Nineties, when the ailing Russian leader quickly promoted Vladimir Putin from relative obscurity to the presidency, the selection of another "dark horse" candidate seems like a strong possibility for 2008.
Biograhy of Mr. Viktor Zubkov
Zubkov graduated from the Economic Department of the Leningrad Agriculture Institute in 1965.
In 1966 he was drafted into the Red Army for an 18-month term of service. Between 1967-1985 he worked on leading positions in kolkhozes (collective farms) of the Leningrad Oblast. In 1985-1991 he occupied several leading positions in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Leningrad Oblast, and from 1989-1991 he served as First Deputy Chairman of the Leningrad Oblast Executive Committee of the Communist Party.
In January 1992 -- November 1993 he was a deputy Chairman of the External Relations Committee of the Saint Petersburg Mayor's Office, reporting to Vladimir Putin.
From November 3, 1993, to November 30, 1998, Zubkov was the Chief of the Saint Petersburg Department of the State Tax Inspection and simultaneously a Deputy Chairman of the State Tax Inspection service for Saint Petersburg.
In December 1998, during the term of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's cabinet, the State Tax Inspection service was folded into the Tax Ministry of Russia and Zubkov's deputy head position was abolished. After the reorganization, Zubkov was immediately reappointed Chief of the Saint Petersburg Directorate of the Tax Ministry. On July 23, 1999, Zubkov was appointed Deputy Tax Minister of Russia for the Northwestern region. In a few days he was also appointed Chief of the Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast Directorate of the Tax Ministry.
On August 12, 1999, he was registered as a candidate in the Leningrad Oblast gubernatiorial election. Assisted by Boris Gryzlov as his campaign manager, he lost the election to Valery Serdyukov on September 19, 1999, with 8.64 percent of the vote (4th place in a field of 16 candidates).
On November 5, 2001 Zubkov left his positions in the Tax Ministry and was appointed First Deputy Finance Minister of Russia and Chairman of the Financial Monitoring Committee, a new government body aimed at fighting money laundering.
On March 16, 2004, after the dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's cabinet, the Financial Monitoring Committee was renamed the Federal Financial Monitoring Service of the Russian Ministry of Finance (the FFMS is often described as the Russian counterpart to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, but its responsibilities are both similar and different). Zubkov retained his position in Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's First Cabinet and in Fradkov's Second Cabinet.
In February 2007, Zubkov's daughter married the current Russian Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov.