Zubkov could help Putin keep control in
the Kremlin's powerful factions [AFP]
The Russian parliament is set to endorse Victor Zubkov, Vladimir Putin's surprise choice for prime minister.

The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, meets on Friday to vote on the Russian president's nomination.

Zubkov, a former financial crimes investigator, is a political unknown, but is a close confidante of Putin.

His sudden appearance on the political scene, following the resignation of Mikhail Fradkov, the former prime minister, on Wednesday, has confounded many observers who had anticipated the elevation of one of two top presidential contenders to the post.

Many now wonder quite what Putin is up to.

The pair goes way back, serving together in the mayor's office in St Petersburg. 

But his political pedigree holds little more than Soviet-era jobs in agriculture.

Loyalty

Many among the political elite and beyond expected that Putin's choice for prime minister would also be his favoured candidate for the presidency and didn't see Zubkov coming.

The question is, why him and why now?

He knows a lot of peculiar things about people who are in financial power now

One theory suggests Putin has chosen a man of unquestioning loyalty to help him control powerful factions jostling for position inside the Kremlin.

Putin wants a smooth transition of power and seeks to keep a lid on instability.

Another clue to his usefulness lies in Zubkov's experience under Putin as the man leading the fight against financial crime.
 
Victoria Panareva, an economy analyst, said: "He is in the financial intelligence sector. So that means that he knows a lot of peculiar things about people who are in financial power now.

"And there has been some uncertainties about how the banks might react with their recent developments."

Succession

Finally, there is the question of succession.

Putin himself rose from relative obscurity to the presidency. He may have similar plans for Zubkov.

An already worried electorate has been assured Putin won't be far away, even after he steps down.

Having a trusted, old friend in the top job may be just what the president needs to make a comeback in 2012.