Russians see Putin's PM as next president - poll

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MOSCOW, Nov 20 (Reuters) Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, plucked from obscurity in September, has emerged as favourite to succeed President Vladimir Putin when he steps down next year, according to a poll published today.

The survey showed rising inflation was the biggest concern of Russian voters ahead of the Dec 2 parliamentary election.

Putin, 55, has vowed to leave office in 2008 after two consecutive four-year terms as president. But he has hinted he will retain influence and has kept everyone guessing about who he could support as Russia's next president.

A poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) for Moscow investment bank Renaissance Capital, showed Russians believed Putin would want Zubkov to succeed him.

Renaissance, in a report on the poll, said: ''The most frequently mentioned name in the category of Putin's choice as the next president is now Zubkov.'' The poll showed 72 per cent of people thought Putin had made a decision on who to support and 26 per cent believed it was Zubkov.

First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, once considered front runners in the race for the Kremlin, have slipped, the poll showed.

Just 17 per cent of people believed Ivanov was Putin's choice and 16 percent Medvedev. But 35 per cent said they did not know.

Putin, who has made a tradition of plucking senior officials from obscurity, appointed Zubkov as prime minister on Sept. 14.

The former head of an anti-money laundering unit, said to be a mentor to the president, he has swiftly made his name as a tough-talking manager who has been given generous airtime on state television, a key indicator of Kremlin approval.

IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID The majority of respondents, 53 per cent, said they would vote for Putin if he ran in the presidential election, a move that would contravene the constitution.

Most respondents, 83 per cent, said Putin would retain an important role after the 2008 elections.

Concerns about inflation were the top electoral issue for more than 65 percent of those polled, up from 45 per cent three months earlier. Fewer than 5 per cent named relations with the West as an important issue.

Prices have soared across Russia this year.

Ministers had to correct their initial 8 per cent annual inflation forecast for 2007 and now say prices will rise by more than 11 per cent, after falling below 10 per cent last year for the first time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

''Inflation, one of the top concerns of the population, has become even more important,'' Renaissance said.

''People expect the next president to help provide higher personal income and be efficient at fighting inflation. This puts pressure on the new administration, in our view, to deliver improved living standards and economic performance.'' The poll was conducted on Oct 25-28 among 1,600 people in 46 Russian regions. The respondents' age, gender and occupation was reflective of Russia's, Renaissance said.

REUTERS PD ND1528

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