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Putin dissolves Cabinet ahead of elections

Russia's president appointed a virtually unknown technocrat as prime minister. The shake-up, expected to make clear who would succeed Putin, has experts puzzled.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin dealt a stunning political surprise Wednesday by unexpectedly dissolving his government and nominating a virtually unknown technocrat, Viktor Zubkov, to take the post of prime minister. Under Russia's constitution, Mr. Zubkov, the head of Russia's financial watchdog agency, is now next in line to the ultrapopular Mr. Putin who must step down early next year.

Moscow's rumor mill has been overheating lately with suggestions that Putin might place his own anointed heir in the prime minister's job, much as he himself was vaulted onto the path to Kremlin leadership by a faltering President Boris Yeltsin almost exactly 8 years ago. But Wednesday's unexpected shake-up sent observers scrambling for explanations.

In televised remarks explaining his decision to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who has served for almost four years, Putin linked it to the upcoming political transition.

"The country is nearing parliamentary elections to be followed by presidential elections," Putin said. "We all need to think together about building the power and governing structure so that they can better meet the needs of the preelection period, and prepare the country for the time after parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008," he added.

But Putin's choice for premier, which will probably be approved by the State Duma this week, seems likely to intensify speculation about Putin's plans for the upcoming Kremlin succession.

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