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Putin signals he may return to presidency

US analyst says leader did not rule out 3d term

Viktor Zubkov was confirmed as Russia's new prime minister at parliament in Moscow yesterday. Viktor Zubkov was confirmed as Russia's new prime minister at parliament in Moscow yesterday. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)

MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin signaled yesterday that he might return to the presidency after 2012, hours after the Russian leader said new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov could make a good successor to him.

Appearing to lift the lid on the closely guarded question of what he plans to do after he steps down next year, Putin made clear to a group of visiting foreign academics he would remain a political force after 2008, according to a US analyst who spoke with him.

"Mr. Putin is not planning to disappear into the fog," said Ariel Cohen, one of the Russia scholars whom Putin met yesterday at his residence in the southern resort city of Sochi.

Cohen, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the academics asked Putin whether he planned a return after 2012, the end of his successor's first term.

"He said it depends. He said he cares about the stability of Russia," Cohen said.

He added, "He did not rule out he would try to return to the presidency." Kremlin spokesmen could not be reached to confirm the remarks.

Zubkov, the virtually unknown technocrat confirmed by Parliament as prime minister yesterday, is considered a strong potential successor as president because he is a Putin loyalist and would be willing step aside after four years to let him return.

"Zubkov ideally fits the profile of the successor," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Russian brokerage Uralsib. "He would be more likely to accommodate Putin's earlier return than might others."

Zubkov was Putin's surprise nomination for the job of prime minister. He kept a low profile as state farm director and a Communist Party official in the Soviet era. For the last six years, he has been Russia's chief financial watchdog, heading an agency that combats money laundering.

Putin has never said anything in public about returning, saying only he planned an unspecified political role after 2008.

"[Putin] did not indicate that he wants to weaken the next president in order to ensure his comeback," Cohen said after yesterday's meeting.

Putin must step down next year because the constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms in office.

But it does not stop him from coming back after his successor's first term ends in 2012, or possibly sooner.

The president has amassed enormous power and is popular at home.

The question of how he plans to manage the transition to a successor has been preoccupying ordinary Russians and investors who have sunk billions of dollars into the booming economy.

Earlier yesterday, the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, confirmed Zubkov to be prime minister by a vote of 381-47.

Zubkov's loyalty was evident in remarks he made to Parliament after being confirmed. He said his priorities would be those set out in Putin's state of the nation speeches.

Zubkov suggested there would be no major policy telling lawmakers that the government's main task is to "provide for the stability of economic and social development."

Observers had expected the post of prime minister, vacated after Putin sacked Mikhail Fradkov, to go to one of the heavyweights inside Putin's team who have been jockeying for months to succeed Putin.

In opening remarks to the visiting academics shown on Russian television, Putin was careful not to indicate he was endorsing Zubkov, an old colleague, to succeed him.

Putin has said that when the time is right he will indicate whom he endorses.

His huge popularity means that person is almost assured of victory in the March presidential election.

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has for months been favorite in the opinion polls to replace Putin.

Describing former collective farm manager Zubkov as a "a true professional," Putin said he was one of at least five people who could stake a realistic claim to the presidency. He did not name the others.

Referring to a comment Zubkov made after his nomination, Putin said in televised remarks: "He said he does not rule out running [for the presidency]."

"I think that was a calm and balanced answer. Now it is hard to see. He still has to work, in a pretty difficult period, and we have to get the . . . [parliamentary] elections out the way. Then we will see."

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