Zubkov confirmed as new Russian prime minister

AFP , MOSCOW

Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 6

Viktor Zubkov won easy confirmation yesterday as Russia's new prime minister after being tapped for the post by President Vladimir Putin, less than six months ahead of a presidential handover.

Deputies in the lower house of parliament, or Duma, overwhelmingly approved Zubkov with 381 votes in favor and 47 against, with eight abstentions.

Speaking to parliament ahead of the vote, Zubkov said his priorities were "ensuring stability of economic and social development."

He promised greater efforts to boost innovation in the economy while also focusing on more traditional strengths such as the defense industry.

He also promised efforts to bring down inflation while maintaining macroeconomic stability as well as social benefits such as pensions.

"We need economic growth not for our own sakes or for the sake of statistics but for the well-being of the people," Zubkov said.

"People who have worked all their lives deserve to live decently" as pensioners, he said.

Putin's nomination of Zubkov, a low-profile senior financial investigator, surprised observers and boosted intrigue over who will take over from Putin after a presidential election on March 2.

Since his nomination late on Wednesday a blaze of publicity has raised Zubkov's profile and on Thursday he secured promises of support at the prime ministerial confirmation from the pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and A Just Russia, as well as the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

In his speech Zubkov promised unspecified ministerial changes.

Some observers speculated that possible casualties in a reshuffle could include liberal-leaning economic development minister, German Gref, who has not managed to secure Putin's goal of Russia joining the WTO.

The shake-up comes as political tensions mount ahead of parliamentary polls on Dec. 2 that in turn pave the way for the presidential vote.

Putin is obliged by the constitution to stand down after the March elections and commentators expect a tightly managed handover, assisted by a media machine made to toe the official line.

Putin insists that Russian citizens will face a free democratic choice.

Doubts remain about the likelihood of a presidential bid by Zubkov, who turns 66 today and has been a close friend of Putin since the president's days as an official at Saint Petersburg in the early 1990s.

Yesterday the Kommersant newspaper advanced the view -- backed by some analysts -- that Zubkov is intended by Putin to remain as prime minister into the administration of the next president as a force for continuity.