Putin observers have been banging their heads against a wall in frustration as they try to understand his selection of Viktor Zubkov to head a new government as prime minister. Rather than look for the simple explanation that you might use for any other quasi-democratic authoritarian regime (the last government was not seen to be performing well and needed to be replaced), the move has spurred on endless speculation: what does it all mean? The Rise of Zubkov has become the latest in a string of events that serves as the pretext for trotting out all the old cliches about Russia–it’s baffling! it’s mysterious!–which never seem to embarrass the people who employ them. It means that Viktor Zubkov will be prime minister. That’s what it means. Mystery solved.
It seems to me that everyone has become so caught up in the idea that the FSB runs everything that it genuinely stuns people when Putin chooses a non-silovik for a job. They had finally come up with an explanation for how the Russian state worked, and a lot of it even seemed to make sense, and then Putin goes and makes a perfectly boring, non-sinister choice for prime minister. How do you fit that into the narrative of Putin the Monster?
Why does any executive choose a nonentity who will do his bidding? So that he will have a nonentity who will do his bidding. It’s really very simple. Why did George Bush select Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General? It wasn’t because of his great legal mind. He had Gonzales’ loyalty right to the end, and knew that Gonzales would do as he was told. He might do his job very badly, but he would not do it with any trace of independence!
Because Zubkov is not from the inner circle or an old secret police man, people are perplexed, apparently forgetting that Putin was mayor of St. Petersburg and probably wants to have someone from that city running the government.
P.S. It turns out that he and Zubkov are old colleagues from city government days. The great riddle has been answered.