MOSCOW, Sep 14 (Reuters) Vladimir Putin signalled on Friday he might return to the presidency after 2012, an analyst who met him said, hours after the Russian leader said new prime minister Viktor Zubkov could make a good successor to him.
On a day when President Putin appeared to finally lift the lid on the tightly-guarded question of what he plans after he steps down next year, he made clear to a group of visiting foreign academics he would remain a political force after 2008.
''Mr. Putin is not planning to disappear into the fog,'' Ariel Cohen, one of the Russia scholars Putin met in the southern city of Sochi today, told Reuters by telephone.
Cohen said the academics asked Putin if he planned a return after 2012, the end of his successor's first term.
''He said it depends, he said he cares about the stability of Russia,'' said Cohen, senior researcher at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
''He did not rule out he would try and return to the presidency.'' But Cohen added: ''(Putin) did not indicate that he wants to weaken the next president in order to ensure his comeback.'' Kremlin spokesmen could not be reached to confirm the remarks.
Putin must step down next year because the constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms in office. But it does not stop him coming back afer his successor's first term ends in 2012, or possibly sooner.
One analyst said Zubkov, the virtually-unknown technocrat confirmed by parliament as prime minister today, could make an ideal successor as president because he was a Putin loyalist and would step aside after four years to let him return.
Putin has never said anything in public about returning, saying only he planned an unspecified political role after 2008.
He has amassed enormous power and is immensely popular at home. The question of how he plans to manage the transition to a successor has been preoccupying ordinary Russians and investors who have sunk billions of dollars into the booming economy.
Earlier today, parliament confirmed financial watchdog chief Zubkov by 381 votes to 47. He was Putin's surprise nomination for the job.
Observers had expected the post of prime minister, vacated after Putin sacked Mikhail Fradkov, to go to one of the heavyweights inside Putin's team who have been jockeying for months to succeed Putin.
''TRUE PROFESSIONAL'' In opening remarks to the visiting academics shown on Russian television, Putin was careful not to indicate he was endorsing Zubkov, an old colleague, to succeed him.
Describing former collective farm manager Zubkov as a ''a true professional,'' he said he was one of at least five people who could stake a realistic claim to the presidency. He did not name the others.
Referring to a comment Zubkov made after his nomination, Putin said in televised remarks: ''He said he does not rule out running (for the presidency).'' ''I think that was a calm and balanced answer. Now it is hard to see. He still has to work, in a pretty difficult period, and we have to get the ... (parliamentary) elections out the way.
Then we will see.'' Putin's reported comments could fit with a scenario set out by some analysts, under which he chooses the replacement who will best ensure his subsequent return.
''Zubkov ideally fits the profile of the successor,'' said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Russian brokerage Uralsib. ''He would be more likely to accommodate Putin's earlier return than might others.'' Putin has said that when the time is right he will indicate who he endorses as his replacement. His huge popularity means that person is almost assured of victory in the March 2008 presidential election.
First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has for months been favourite in the opinion polls to replace Putin.
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