Interview with Aleksey Pushkov
Russia Today: Viktor Zubkov has said he might run for President in the 2008 election. Some people say he is too old for the post, he is going to be 66 in just a few days. Do you think he might be the successor that everybody has been waiting for?
Aleksey Pushkov: I don’t think so although Ronald Reigan ran for the presidency when he was 68 and he was pretty successful, he was chosen for two terms. I think Mr Zubkov was chosen by President Putin solely for the position of Prime Minister. Also, by this move Mr Putin has made a ceratin break in the traditional logic, namely that whoever becomes Prime Minister also becomes the next President. Not necessarily. The Prime Minister can be appointed while the next President may be chosen from quite a different set of people. Mikhail Fradkov, for instance, was not particularly close to Mr Putin, although the President trusted him. Mr Zubkov does not come from the President’s inner circle, he is not part of Putin’s team, like Sergey Ivanov or Dmitry Medvedev, for example.
RT: Isn’t Mr Zubkov Vladimir Putin’s friend, actually?
A.P.: I don’t think that he has very close personal ties with Mr Putin. They know each other, but Mr Zubkov is part of the inner group which is debating the most important problems.
RT: Mikhail Fradkov also announced he would run for the presidency. Why do you think Viktor Zubkov would say the same if he is not running for the presidency?
A.P.: In my opinion, President Putin wants to keep up the intrigue until the very end. Remember in Abu Dhabi he said he and his team will be working till the last second. So he needs to keep the intrigue. Maybe Sergey Ivanov will be his successor, maybe Viktor Zubkov, maybe someone else. Thus Mr Putin ensures that he won't become a lame duck and shows others he is still the President. There are a lot of pretenders but the big guy is still here. If today he had appointed Sergey Ivanov, for instance, who is considered to be the number one contender, all Russian bureaucracy would have repositioned themselves towards Mr Ivanov. The incumbent president would become a kind of ceremonial figure as everybody would think , “Ivanov is going to be President, we should forge ties with him”. So Mr Putin would cease to be a real president half a year before the end of his term. He doesn’t want this, so he has chosen someone out from the shadows.
RT: So do you think Mr Zubkov will become a technical figure?
A.P.: Not necessarily. He may start as a technical figure. But once again, when Mikhail Fradkov was appointed Prime Minister everyone was saying he was a technical figure but he still spent three years in the position. So I would not be surprised if Mr Zubkov remained Prime Minister well into the next presidential term if he is successful. He may be Prime Minister under the next President.
I believe Vladimir Putin will choose a successor among his closest advisors, those who have worked with him in the course of the seven years. Mr Zubkov is not from the very first circle. I even doubt he is from the second circle. I’m not sure this is enough to become successor.
RT: Why Viktor Zubkov and why now?
A.P.: In my opinion, first of all, Mr Putin wanted to give a shake to the government before the elections. There are a number of people who are not very popular in the government like Mr Zurabov, Head of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and there are some others as well. I think the President wants to offer the country a new government before the election in order to show he is capable of renovation. Secondly, there were rumours that Mr Fradkov’s health is not very good, so who knows, maybe this was preventing him from being very effective in the position of Prime Minister. Nobody was speaking about this, but it was known that he had some problems. This also might be a reason for the President to decide to choose another person. Besides, I think, Mr Zubkov is a good candidate for this position because he is not considered to be – at least until now he was not – a contender for the position of the next President. By naming Viktor Zubkov Mr Putin stays the ‘super-person’ of Russian politics. Had he named Sergey Ivanov or some of his successors he would have ceded some of his authority to the Prime Minister and to the next President. By naming Mr Zubkov, who is hardly, to my mind, the next President, he is simply appointing a Prime Minister who will be running the government during the electoral campaign but not taking part in it.
RT: Being an unknown figure, is this the only asset to his personality that would make him a good Prime Minister?
A.P.: I think he is a very experienced bureaucrat, and I think the fact that he has known Putin for a long time also speaks in his favour. But the fact that he is virtually unknown is bad for the elections. Still, I guess the President has some consideration of public opinion and he would not present the Russian public with a choice which told them nothing.
RT: How differently, do you think, will Viktor Zubkov run the government from his predecessor Mr Fradkov?
A.P.: I do not think there will be very drastic changes. I guess some heads will roll. There will be some new appointments, but the general line will basically be the same. I suppose Mr Putin wants two things from the new Prime Minister. First, to fight corruption, as the level of corruption is something that bothers the President very much. Second, he wants a more efficient government because there are a number of cases when a decision has been taken but is not implemented. So Vladimir Putin wants the Prime Minister sees to the implementation of decisions – something that Mikhail Fradkov did not manage to do.