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New Russian Prime Minister has History with Putin

President Vladimir Putin surprised many in and out of Russia by nominating Viktor Zubkov (above) to be Russia's next prime minister. Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images

The nomination of Russia's new prime minister, Victor Zubkov, may have taken most of Russia's political establishment by surprise, but it was far from the first time President Vladimir Putin has plucked previously unknown officials from obscurity.

Putting loyal bureaucrats in charge of ministries, state-controlled monopolies and other major organizations has been a central part of Putin's relentless drive to consolidate the Kremlin's control over Russian politics and vast swaths of the economy. Zubkov's predecessor Mikhail Fradkov, who served three and a half years as prime minister, was a similarly little-known foreign trade official when the president selected him for the job.

But Zubkov's nomination has come at a much more sensitive time: the authoritarian Kremlin is preparing for a transfer of power after Putin's two-term limit expires next year.

Zubkov is well prepared to serve the Kremlin in his new post. The businesslike official's previous job as head of the government's financial crimes investigation agency — which led money-laundering investigations against business tycoons and Kremlin opponents Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky — gave him control of an agency used to attacking Putin's rivals.

Kommersant newspaper reported Zubkov as having proposed monitoring the bank accounts of other prominent politicians and businessmen. His tenure at the Federal Financial Monitoring Service also saw Russia's removal from a blacklist maintained by the Financial Action Task Force, an international agency that fights money laundering.

A History With Putin

Sixty-six year-old Zubkov was born in the Urals Mountains and first worked as a factory fitter. He later become an economist and spent 20 years in the northwest Leningrad Region running state collective farms, a sector economists say created one of the biggest drags on a spectacularly inefficient centralized economy.

Zubkov met Putin after the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, when both served in the St. Petersburg city administration under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a liberal reform icon whom both are said to have greatly respected. Many of those closest to Putin — who've been appointed to the Kremlin's top jobs, as well as in government, regional administrations and state-controlled industries — worked with the president in St. Petersburg. Unlike many of them, Zubkov is not believed to have been connected to the KGB.

In a political system that's once again come to require loyalty as the main criterion for getting ahead, Zubkov has a reputation for keeping his head down. Crucially, he's also remained friendly with Putin since the president's days as a young, ambitious St. Petersburg official. In the intervening years, Zubkov founded a dacha development outside St. Petersburg in which Putin bought property.

One business daily reported Zubkov as also recently having helped blow out the candles of Putin's birthday cake. Zubkov's son-in-law is the country's defense minister, a former tax ministry official whose own surprise appointment last year astounded political and military observers.

Putin had long been expected to appoint a new prime minister before key parliamentary elections next December. But most predicted the job would go to one of two top officials widely believed to be the main candidates to succeed Putin in a presidential election next March. Among them is Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer who is close to Putin and has been seen as the top contender to succeed him.

Putin's 80-percent-plus approval ratings and his tight grip on power mean whoever he names as his favored successor is almost certain to win next year's presidential contest. The prime minister's post is seen as the best springboard for the top job.

The Russian parliament approved Zubkov's appointment days after Putin announced the nomination.

Theories for Zubkov's Appointment

Two main theories exist about Putin's reasons for elevating Zubkov. The new prime minister may have been appointed as a compromise figure to placate political clans warring behind the Kremlin's high walls. Some believe Putin's surprise decision was meant to maintain his own authority: by appointing a temporary placeholder before announcing his real preferences later, the president keeps his cards close to his chest and avoids being seen as a lame duck.

However, Zubkov has said he may run for president next year, and others believe he could become a figurehead leader while Putin maintains real power from another position in government. The temporary placeholder president would step aside when Putin becomes eligible to run for office again in four years, or sooner if a reason for early elections can be contrived.

But some experts say the president may be wary of handing his Kremlin office to an unknown. Putin was himself brought out of the political wilderness when then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister from his old job as security service chief in 1999. The former KGB officer went on to win the presidency and consolidate political power partly by attacking those who helped install him in office.

Sergei Ivanov appeared unfazed by his apparent passing over for prime minister. Speaking of Zubkov in a confident, almost presidential tone, he told reporters the new prime minister is "perfectly capable of carrying out the job." Whatever Putin's reasons for picking the obscure bureaucrat, his nomination has showed the president remains very much in control of Russian politics.