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Putin fires prime minister, nominates surprise replacement
MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday replaced his long-serving prime minister with an obscure Cabinet official -- a surprise move that could make him a candidate to succeed Putin in next year's presidential election.
The nomination of Viktor Zubkov, who currently oversees the government's fight against money laundering, appeared to have caught much of the Russian political elite off-guard.
Putin had been expected to announce in December whom he would back to run for president next year -- and Russia's two first deputy prime ministers -- former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and gas giant Gazprom board chairman Dmitry Medvedev -- were widely considered to be the leading contenders.
The unexpected choice left pundits guessing whether Zubkov would serve as a stopgap figure without any political weight or would be groomed as the next president. Putin is constitutionally barred from a third straight term, but could seek to return in 2012 or earlier if his successor steps down before his term ends.
Some analysts and political figures suggested that Putin may have picked Zubkov as a figurehead to keep ruling from behind the scenes after stepping down as president.
"The appointment of a person without political face as prime minister of a great nation in this difficult time means that the president is the only source of power," said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party. "The appointment is a move toward the effective extension of Vladimir Putin's rule even after his authority formally ends."