MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin stuck to his habit of choosing virtually unknown technocrats as prime minister on Wednesday with his nomination of Viktor Zubkov for the vacant job.
By nominating 65-year-old Zubkov, head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, Putin confounded observers who were expecting the job to go to a heavyweight candidate who would use it as a stepping stone to become president next year.
Instead, Putin kept everyone guessing about the succession by giving the job to a man seen by most analysts as a transitional figure who is not yet regarded as a serious contender for the presidency.
“He was a pretty colorless, grey person,” said a former colleague of Zubkov’s when he was head of the tax inspectorate of Russia’s second city of St Petersburg.
“He was tongue-tied and was terribly frightened of public speaking,” said the former colleague, who did not want to be identified. “He did not generate ideas. He was someone who carried out instructions.”
Another St Petersburg official, who worked with Zubkov in the 1990s, said: “He is all but certain not to be handpicked as the successor -- he is too old. Maybe he will serve as an interim prime minister.”
Zubkov ran for governor of the Leningrad Region in 1999, but his performance was lackluster and he finished a distant third, the official recalled. “He was simply terrified when he had to deal with the business of standing for election.”
In common with many of the politicians who have risen to the top under Putin, Zubkov worked alongside the future Russian president in St Petersburg’s City Hall in the 1990s.
As head of the Financial Monitoring Service from 2001, Zubkov played a major role in combating money laundering -- a key priority for Putin as he waged a campaign against “oligarchs” who made fortunes while flouting the law.
The service was instrumental in getting Russia removed from the blacklist drawn up by the Financial Action Task Force, an international body that combats money-laundering.
Zubkov was nominated to replace Mikhail Fradkov, who stepped down after over three years as prime minister earlier on Wednesday.
When Fradkov was nominated, he too was almost unknown and working as Russia’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels. Markets were reassured that Zubkov has some financial background.
“We see him (Zubkov) as a prime minister who will guarantee succession but not as future president. In terms of macroeconomics, Zubkov is no worse than Fradkov,” said Yevgeny Nadorshin, analyst at Moscow’s Trust Bank.
Zubkov’s daughter lives with Anatoly Serdyukov, another St Petersburg native whom Putin earlier this year appointed as defense minister, his former colleague said.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst, told Ekho Moskvy radio that “Zubkov has always had significant informal influence on a number of issues and the brightest idea to date adopted (by Putin) on his suggestion was the appointment of his son-in-law Serdyukov as Russia’s Defence Minister this spring”.
Zubkov was born on Sept 15, 1941 in the village of Arbat in the Urals mountains. His first job was a fitter in a factory.
He went on to qualify as an economist specializing in agriculture and worked on state farms in the Leningrad region surrounding St Petersburg for 18 years.
He joined the city administration in 1985, serving for a time in the foreign economic department where Putin worked. From 1993 until 2001 he was a senior official in the tax service, leaving to head the financial monitoring service in 2001.