Putin fires prime minister, nominates surprise replacement

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Russian Premier Mikhail Fradkov in Kazan, Friday, in this Aug. 26, 2005 file photo. President Vladimir Putin dismissed his long-serving prime minister Wednesday and nominated little-known Cabinet official Victor Zubkov to replace him in a surprise move that could put Zubkov in the running to replace Putin next year. (AP Photo/ Ramil Galiyev)

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.

Viktor Zubkov, Head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, seen in Moscow, in this Dec. 9, 2004 file photo. President Vladimir Putin nominated Viktor Zubkov who oversees the fight against money laundering to become the new prime minister, in a surprise move that will stoke speculation as to who Putin might tap to succeed him after next year's presidential elections. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Vladimir Vyatkin) ** NO SALES NO ARCHIVES EDITORIAL USE ONLY NOT FOR USE AFTER OCT 12 2007 **

"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."