Politics as Usual

In Russia, the Key Postions Still Get Handed Out to the Favoured

The Sept. 14 nomination of Viktor Zubkov to replace Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister of the Russian Duma should not have been a surprise. Indeed, rumours about the dismissal of the previous Russian Government started immediately after the appointment of as the Prime Minister in 2004.

Nevertheless, the political elite of Russia and the entire world found themselves caught off guard. Three days later the State Duma approved the new candidate, showing unusual unity in this decision – the relatively unknown head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, Zubkov got 381 votes of parliamentarians – out of 450.

“Russian politics continues as it used to in the past, the person who was expected to become something does not become something and the person who is not expected to become something suddenly gets all kinds of positions,” said Dmitry Babich, political analyst of the Russian magazine Profile.

So, why such a success? Zubkov has his advantages, according to Mikhail Fedotov, the first (and former) press minister of the Russian Federation.

“A newcomer in politics, he is not involved in any scandals, not linked to any centres of political influence,” Fedotov said. “He is not an obsessive reformer, not a martinet, not a Harvard kid, but a reliable, not ambitious, thorough, balanced, Soviet-style respectable State-employee.”

A “one of us” feeling prevailed.

Sixty-six year old Viktor Zubkov was born in Sverdlovsk region of the Urals. He moved to Leningrad with a degree in economics, where he managed state farms before leaving for St. Petersburg in the mid-90s, where he worked as a deputy to Vladimir Putin who was then chairman of the mayor’s Committee on External Relations.

Zubkov joined the finance ministry in 2001 and was later appointed chairman of the Financial Monitoring Committee. With budgeting credentials like these, Zubkov is seen as the right man at the right time – a few months before the parliament elections.

His blameless past gives many politicians a hope for stability in the new cabinet. Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky believes a Zubkov government would become a crowning achievement of Russian bureaucracy, placing a priority on competence,  and delegating accordingly.

“The most important thing is being able to ensure the stability of economic and social development and increasing the efficiency of the government’s work,” Zubkov said on Sept. 14. “This means creating a more effective structure and increasing the personal responsibility of its members.”  So perhaps President Putin’s dream of a government working as efficiently as a Swiss watch may finally become true.

This would all make perfect sense at almost any other time. Now, though, it’s the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, and on several occasions, Zubkov has confirmed his desire to run. According to Fedotov, the new PM would never risk his appointment by openly stating his hopes to replace Putin and certainly not without the president’s consent. However, being PM prior to becoming president is a tested path, as proven when Boris Yeltsin “transfered” power to Vladimir Putin in 2000.

So while the political elite and international investors continue to wonder about Russia’s future, Viktor Zubkov changes the Cabinet and travels around the country. His first steps speak for themselves. The PM insists on increasing pensions and salaries – for example, when visiting the Penza region, Zubkov addressed Gov. Vasily Bochkarev with a “request” to raise the low salaries of kindergarten staff.

Otherwise, Zubkov suggested, the governor himself would have to entertain the children.

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