MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin dissolved his government yesterday and chose an obscure Cabinet official as the new prime minister, a move widely seen as the Russian leader's first steps in engineering a carefully controlled handover of power.
Analysts differed on whether Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is Putin's surprise choice to succeed him as president when Putin steps down next spring or a caretaker figure, but they agreed that the Kremlin's shake-up marks the initial phase in a leadership change that is likely to be decided long before the election.
Most Russians had never heard of Zubkov, 65, head of a government agency that combats money-laundering and a close friend of Putin's since they worked together in the St. Petersburg mayor's office in the early 1990s.
With parliamentary elections approaching in December and the presidential contest scheduled for March, speculation about Putin's choice as his successor has intensified across Russia.
Two longtime members of Putin's inner circle, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, are viewed as the front-runners.
Ivanov, once Russia's defense minister, oversees diversification of Russia's economy. Medvedev, once Putin's chief of staff, is in charge of improving Russian health care, schools and housing.
Some analysts said Ivanov and Medvedev are likely to remain at the top of Putin's list despite the shake-up and that Zubkov is a transitional figure who will steward the government while competing groups in the Kremlin wrangle over Russia's future power structure.
"He's absolutely a transitional person who cannot become a successor," said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Zubkov has no background to become a successor."
Another analyst, however, said that in naming Zubkov prime minister, Putin has revealed his choice for a successor.
"I think we are seeing the name of the next president of the Russian Federation," said Konstantin Simonov, an analyst with the Center for Current Politics in Moscow. "Putin thinks now is a good time to reveal his successor. It's his style of decision-making, unpredictable."
Zubkov succeeds Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who told Putin yesterday that he was stepping down to give the Russian president "full freedom of choice" as the elections approach.
"The country is on the eve of important political events," Fradkov said.
Putin is in his last year of a second four-year term. The constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive terms. Putin has the majority he needs in the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, to change the constitution and extend his presidency, but he has consistently said he would never do that.
Putin and his aides have stressed that the next president will be chosen by Russian voters in March and will not be a hand-picked successor. At a dinner with foreign journalists last month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin probably will express his preference for a presidential candidate, an endorsement that would have considerable influence given Putin's immense popularity.
Most political analysts think Putin will select his successor behind the scenes, making a choice that reflects a continuation of his agenda for the country.
Under Putin, the Kremlin has established a firm grip on Russian politics by marginalizing opposition movements and establishing control of parliament, the selection of provincial governors and national television networks.
An even larger question as Putin's presidency draws to a close is what role the Russian leader will take after he steps down. He has said he would continue to wield influence in some fashion after his presidency but has never specified how much control he would retain or how he would exert that influence.
Though barred from serving a third consecutive term, Putin could seek the presidency again in 2012.
"The most important question here is what will happen to Putin after the elections," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Moscow sociologist and an expert on Kremlin affairs. "What will he do if he wants to retain his current status and influence?"
Fradkov will stay on as acting prime minister until the Duma ratifies Zubkov for the post, which it is expected to do tomorrow.
Fradkov, who succeeded Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister in 2004, has headed the Russian Cabinet during a time of high oil prices that have buoyed Russia's economic and geopolitical resurgence.
Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.
Viktor Zubkov Viktor Zubkov, Putin's surprise choice to replace the premier who resigned months ahead of crucial elections, is virtually unknown to the millions of Russians awaiting word on the president's choice of a favored successor.
But he has been at Putin's side since the early 1990s, when both men worked in the office of the St. Petersburg mayor. Almost throughout Putin's two terms, he has headed the government agency responsible for fighting money laundering.
"Most importantly, he is a member of Putin's inner circle," said Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation think tank.