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DateLine Sunday, 16 September 2007

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A departure from the last Kremlin script

President Vladimir Putin set in motion Wednesday what looks like a tightly scripted plan that will culminate with the transfer of power in March. In effect, Putin officially kicked off the presidential campaign - the Kremlin's version of one, anyway. Those who thought Putin would borrow a page from his own ascension to power were caught off guard. And for good reason: The similarities between what is happening now and what happened in 1999 are striking.

President Boris Yeltsin elevated Putin, then the relatively unknown director of the Federal Security Service, to the position of prime minister in August 1999, roughly half a year before the presidential election. Putin tapped Viktor Zubkov, an obscure bureaucrat who oversees a financial crimes agency, to replace Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister on Wednesday, also half a year before the presidential election. Both promotions surprised politicians and business leaders.

But there was a key difference. In the same breath that Yeltsin announced his decision, he declared that Putin would succeed him as president. Then, just to make sure everything went according to plan, Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve to make Putin acting president.

The flouting of basic democratic principles couldn't have been more blatant. Few people complained, however; Putin's popularity was sky high, thanks to the war in Chechnya and the copious coverage he received on television.On Wednesday, Putin made no mention of whether Zubkov might be in line for the presidency. He didn't even announce his candidacy. Putin left it to State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov to break the news.

Putin could still name Zubkov as his preferred successor, and Zubkov would probably be up to the task. He appears to be as capable an administrator as Fradkov, but with the added experience of fighting corruption. There is no single issue that has worried investors more in recent years than a surge in corruption at all levels of the government. Zubkov's efforts to stem money laundering as the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service are impressive; among other things, he got Russia off an international blacklist.

It remains to be seen whether Zubkov, whose candidacy is expected to be confirmed by the State Duma on Friday, will be given sufficient authority to fight corruption - or a long enough tenure to kick-start the effort.

But that is beside the point in a presidential election season.

Putin's appointment in 1999 proved part of an orchestrated plan to ensure a smooth handover of power to the Yeltsin administration's preferred successor. Zubkov's appointment can mean nothing less.

Short of Putin resigning on New Year's Eve, however, the Kremlin's presidential campaign this time is promising to be more stable and perhaps a bit more democratic. But only, of course, if fair and equal television coverage is given to all contenders, declared and undeclared alike.

(Courtesy: The Moscow Times.com)

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