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In search of a European identity

Viktor Zubkov – the Putin connections


So, is new Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov going to be the next President? After all, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister (out of nowhere) shortly before the 2000 presidential election in which Putin took power. Is Vlad following Boris’ lead in appointing his own successor?

Because, let’s face it, Russia’s been going even more mental than usual in the last few months – always a sign that an election’s coming up. Hell, even in the last couple of days we’ve had reminders of pre-Litvinenko poisonings from the President of Ukraine, massive bomb tests and Russian bombers being intercepted entering NATO airspace.

With three months to go until the parliamentary and six months until the presidential elections (in which Putin – despite his massive domestic popularity – can’t stand for constitutional reasons), unlike the last few election periods (2003/4, 1999/2000 and 1995/6) so far there hasn’t been any major chaos in Chechnya, nor heightened threats of “Chechen terrorism” to provide a handy unifying force. Instead, Putin seems to have picked a far bigger menace to help bring Russia together behind whoever it is he picks to succeed him: the West.

Ah… Cold War rhetoric… Don’t you just love it?

But anyway, who’s this Zubkov chap, who’s now pretty much the front-runner to be Putin’s successor (following the precedent of Yeltsin’s appointment of the then largely unknown Putin as Prime Minister shortly before the 2000 presidential elections)?

He’s not a name periously much bandied about – he doesn’t warrant a single mention in Alexander Litvinenko’s grand anti-Putin conspiracy Blowing up Russia, for example – and for the last few years he’s held fairly anonymous positions in the finance ministry.

However, if you buy in to the Litvinenko conspiracy theory that the Russian presidency has been taken over by an elite group of ex-KGB men, and that the Russian polity is currently being carefully manipulated by the security services, Zubkov is an ideal successor to Putin to make the theory hold up.

Firstly, he (like Putin in 1999) is barely known. Secondly, Zubkov is also father-in-law to Russia’s Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, so can be assured of total loyalty should he become president and decide on yet more bomb tests, bomber flights into European airspace, or wars in Chechnya.

But, naturally enough, that’s not all…

His only previous attempt to gain proper elected office was running for governor of St Petersburg in 1999 – where he only managed fourth place. As anyone who’s been interested enough in Putin’s Russia to dig into the links a bit will know, it is Putin’s home town of St Petersberg which provides the clue.

Zubkov’s campaign manager back in 1999 was one Boris Gryzlov – currently Speaker of the Duma and leader of far and away the biggest political party, United Russia – despite having only moved into high-profile politics for the first time in 1999, coincidentally the same year that his fellow St Petersburger Putin suddenly burst onto the scene.

Gryzlov is also little-known, despite being a major political figure and routinely described as “a close ally of Putin”. One thing that is known, however, is that he went to school with both former head of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) Nikolay Patrushev (the man who succeeded Putin in the role, and who is a central character in Litvinenko’s allegations over the Russian apartment bombings) and current FSB head Sergei Smirnov. To top it off, Gryzlov’s business partner is one Viktor Ivanov, Putin’s deputy head of the presidential staff, and another former KGB man.

But that’s not the only interesting St Petersburg connection. Zubkov was also personally involved as a member of the “St Petersburg mafia” – as the group of ex-KGB and Red Army men working for the regime of St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the early 1990s became known – as first deputy chief of the Mayor’s Office external relations committee, the central official organisation from which the group operated, from 1991-93.

Viktor Ivanov was chief of the administrative staff at the time, and during the same period, the external relations committee also saw the presence of one Alexei Miller – currently CEO of energy giant Gazprom, which has arguably been holding much of Europe to ransom over the last couple of years thanks to its delightful way of playing politics with gas supplies. Some have even claimed that Gazprom’s decision to withhold gas supplies from places like Ukraine have been on the orders of the Kremlin, in order to help exert greater political pressure.

From 1991-96, the head of the St Petersburg external relations committee happened to be one Vladimir Putin.

Zubkov, in other words, would make an ideal presidential caretaker during the term in which old Vlad is constitutionally unable to stand for office. Come 2012, he could step down and our man Putin sweep back into the Kremlin on waves of populist glory. No one else, once again, will have a look-in.

More background and analysis: Scraps of Moscow, Russia Blog, Financial Times, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post and the Economist.


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