Putin's Surprise Power Play

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Vladimir Rodionov / Presidential Press Service / RIA-Novosti / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Viktor Zubkov (R), Head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, meet in the Kremlin in Moscow.

A few hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin fired his cabinet on Wednesday, a savvy Russian official was sitting over lunch, predicting that just such a move was imminent. But like almost everyone else, he expected that the new Prime Minister — and thus heir apparent to Putin, who is barred by Russia's constitution from running for a third term when presidential elections are held next year — would be one of his two deputy prime ministers. "Putin won't be altering the succession pattern, because the people are used to this," the official said. "He'll nominate Sergei Ivanov as Prime Minister."

Instead, Putin confounded expectations by picking financial-crime investigator Viktor Zubkov to take over from Mikhail Fradkov as Prime Minister. Zubkov is head of the Financial Monitoring Committee, responsible for overseeing the movement of money in Russia. Speaker of the Duma Boris Gryzlov hastened to give assurances that Zubkov would be confirmed without a hitch this Friday.

A former Communist Party and Soviet state official, Zubkov, who turns 66 this Saturday, has never left Putin's side since January 1992, when he became deputy to the former KGB man who was then head of the Foreign Relations Department of St. Petersburg's city government. Putin promoted Zubkov to head St. Petersburg's Tax Collecting Service. Zubkov then followed Putin to Moscow, becoming deputy tax minister, then deputy finance minister, and, since March 2004, heading the financial police.

In his fiscal capacity, Zubkov has played a crucial role in dismantling the Yukos oil giant, now taken over by the state. He has also groomed another top fiscal cop — his son-in-law Anatoli Serdyukov, once a furniture dealer and now Russia's Defense Minister. Serving under Zubkov, Serdyukov proved himself a ruthless and efficient fiscal sleuth. Putin installed him at Znamenka (Russia's Pentagon) to make up for what his other protégé, Defense Minister and later First Deputy Premier Sergei Ivanov, had failed to accomplish — to make sure that the Kremlin, rather than the military brass, controls the cash.

Before Zubkov's emergence, the front-runners in the presidential succession race had been First Deputy Premiers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev. Since the entire cabinet resigned Wednesday, neither man is assured of recovering even those positions. Although Medvedev controls the economic powerhouse Gazprom, he lacks political heft. Ivanov, former KGB-FSB Colonel-General and close confidant of Putin, had appeared too smug lately that he had his ever-vigilant old friend's continued support for the top job.

Zubkov not only controls cash, but he also enjoys support of the most radical faction of the Kremlin Siloviki (the hard-line and hard-nosed conservative law enforcers and military brass who call the shots under Putin). This faction is led by another Putin confidant, Deputy Chief of the Presidential Staff Igor Sechin; former KGB Lieutenant-General Victor Ivanov, another Deputy Chief of Staff (in charge of cadres); and former Prosecutor General, now Minister of Justice Vladimir Ustinov.

But while Zubkov has been installed in the job that makes him Putin's heir apparent, the question remains whether he's actually being tapped for the succession. That's a question to which even Putin himself, increasingly anxious to find a way to maintain his power despite the requirements of the constitution, may not yet have the answer.