President Vladimir Putin's choice for prime minister would not run out a run for the presidency – intrigue turns more interesting…
Asked whether he would be president, Viktor Zubkov said: "If I achieve something in this position, I do not rule out this scenario."
Zubkov's remark deepened the uncertainty Putin created Wednesday by choosing his little-known ally to replace Mikhail Fradkov, the prime minister since 2004, ahead of December parliamentary elections and a March presidential vote in which Putin is barred from seeking a third straight term.
It suggested Putin is determined to maintain as much control as possible during the succession process - and possibly beyond - and does not want to tip his hand too early. Putin has strongly suggested he plans to retain influence after he steps down, and has not ruled out a 2012 presidential bid.
Russians had been expecting Putin to throw his support behind a favored successor closer to the election, possibly by making him prime minister, and first deputy premiers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev have been considered the leading contenders.
Zubkov, who turns 66 on Saturday, is also a member of Putin's inner circle and has spent the last six years overseeing investigations into suspicious financial transactions as the head of the agency charged with fighting money-laundering.
After the announcement of Zubkov's nomination, analysts - citing his age and his obscurity - said he was less likely to be Putin's favored successor than a caretaker prime minister, perhaps to be replaced closer to the presidential vote.
Some saw his appointment as signaling Putin's intention to retain control over the country even after he steps down, and others speculated that his caretaker role could extend into the presidency, allowing Putin to return in 2012 or sooner.
"Zubkov is 65. If he does become Putin's successor, it will likely be for only one term. Then Putin will say, 'I am ready to return,"' Communist lawmaker Viktor Ilyukhin said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Putin himself was little-known when he began his swift ascent to power, and the Kremlin's tight control over politics and the media could be turned - as with Putin - into tools that could swiftly groom a relatively obscure person for top office.
State-run television pumped up Zubkov's image in positive coverage on evening news shows following Wednesday's announcement, and pro-Kremlin politicians depicted him as honest and hardworking.
His remark to reporters about the presidency came during a day of closed-door discussions with lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower parliament house, before a vote expected Friday on his confirmation, which is assured.
Putin said Wednesday that he needed to appoint a government better suited to campaign for December and March elections, and to "prepare the country" for life after the elections.
Just how, though, he left unclear - likely deliberately, to demonstrate that he is in control and to leave him room for maneuver as he prepares to step down. Zubkov, who has worked under Putin since the early 1990s, is seen as a loyal figure likely to fulfill any role Putin sets before him.
Zubkov met separately with the top parties in parliament, behind closed doors and amid tight security.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said his faction, with more than 50 votes, would vote against Zubkov. But a simple majority of 226 votes in the 450-seat chamber is sufficient for approval, and United Russia has about 300 seats. Flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party backs most Kremlin initiatives, said it would support Zubkov.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18