09/13/2007, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Putin plays the new ‘Lord of the Rings’

by Marta Allevato
Putin confounds Russian and foreign analysts by appointing an unknown, Viktor Zubkov, to replace Prime Minister Vicktor Fradkov who unexpectedly resigned. In Russia prime ministerial appointments signal Tzar Vladimir’s intentions with regard to his succession. Observers agree that the real election campaign for 2008 has just started.

Rome (AsiaNews) – For independent daily Novaya Gazeta Vladimir Putin is like a character right out of a fantasy novel, a kingpin shaking up the stage of the country’s future without showing his hand, the more so since he appointed yesterday Viktor Zubkov, chairman of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service at the Finance Ministry, to the post of Prime Minister after the old occupant Viktor Fradkov tendered his “resignation”.

Like Frodo the Hobbit, Putin has the One Ring, the Great Ring of Power, dwelling in a place inhabited by orcs, trolls and gollums, uncertain whether to throw the Ring into the fire or not, but ultimately yelling: ‘I changed my mind; it’s mine.”

According to editorial writer Yulia Latynina, the president is like the main protagonist in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. “The Lords of the west (the humans) are looking at him and asking themselves: Will he throw in the Ring or not?”

But Novaya Gazeta’s views are not unique. Both at home and abroad many are wondering. As the surprise at Putin’s move starts to wear off, they are raising questions about next year’s presidential succession (March 2008). So far though, no one is daring to come up with an answer.

What is certain, according to Russian daily Kommersant, is that Putin was the only one not caught unaware by the resignation of Fradkok and his ministers. Unlike Kremlin insiders who scratched their heads trying to figure what was going on, the president yesterday was on a routine visit to a school in the city of Cheboksary to focus public attention on national education. It makes you feel that everything had already been “thought-out.”

“It's a classic Putin move in which he relishes surprising the establishment pending the real decision,” says Peter Baker of The Washington Post.

Many observers were waiting to see who would get the second highest position in the Russian state before trying to guess what the president was planning since under Russia’s two-term presidency he cannot run again.

Past experience showed that whoever got the prime ministership had a leg up for the presidency. Indeed this is how Putin got the job under Boris Yeltsin.

However, no one expected that out of all the possible presidential wannabes waiting in the wings, Putin would pick a grey, unknown apparatchik. Most people had put their money on Defence Minister Serghei Ivanov or Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of Gazprom's board of directors Dmitry Medvedev,

Why Zubkov then? Many hypotheses are flying around. For the Novaya Gazeta, which employed murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, it is “[p]ower struggles between Kremlin clans,” which Putin wants to control. Indeed along with the new prime minister there should be new ministers, especially at the economy ministry.

According to Strategic Forecasting, Putin is trying to put back together all those in the top leadership who had started to move apart. He certainly does not want the process of succession to destabilise the system he has set up, one that is based on the marginalisation of the political opposition and the exclusion of unfriendly oligarchs

Others believe instead that ‘Tzar Vladimir’ wants a seat-sitter for president in view of an eventual comeback. Zubkov is in fact a bit old, 66, and is no match for Putin.

Should he be elected in 2008 and then resign some time before his term in office is over, the current occupant of the Kremlin could legally run again.

For now though all analysts agree that the real presidential campaign for 2008 has just started.

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