By Dan Peleschuk
In what some are calling a concession to the scores of anti-establishment protesters who have flooded the streets in recent weeks, the Kremlin bumped chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov from his post as deputy head of the presidential staff. Yet the consequences of his departure – he’ll reportedly refrain from participating in domestic politics – remain unclear. Experts said the move is the latest in a political reshuffle intended to consolidate power ahead of the March presidential elections.
Removing Surkov, long painted as the Kremlin’s shadowy “gray cardinal,” from the inner workings of domestic politics means removing the very mastermind of the system that has buoyed Vladimir Putin and United Russia throughout Putin’s tenure. Credited with crafting his unique form of “sovereign democracy,” Surkov has provided the logistics and ideological support for what Putin and other officials have touted as the successful stabilization of a country thrown off course by the chaotic 1990s, but what critics allege has been the often brutal consolidation of power and rollback of democratic freedoms.
Surkov’s commentary on the matter was just as mysterious as the man himself. In a brief interview with Interfax, he commented: “I am too odious for this brave new world.” Then, amidst laughter, he noted that, “Stabilization is devouring its children…No one can stay in one place [for too long].”
His legacy, to be sure, is mixed. With Surkov’s guidance, the Putin regime molded post-Soviet Russia into a bastion of “stability” which saw, finally, the emergence of a relatively prosperous middle class. But as discontent has risen in recent months, Surkov has been increasingly identified with the perceived manipulation, cynicism and arrogance of the authorities. In the past few months alone, he has been labeled as the Kremlin’s “puppet master,” and his name has become synonymous with heavily censored state television news broadcasts.
And now, Surkov is losing, at least on paper, the position he has held since 1999, when Putin first came to power. His new post as deputy prime minister for economic modernization and innovation, moreover, is a curious choice. In this position – again, at least on paper – he will play no role in domestic politics. Yet for a man who seems so thoroughly devoted to managing the Russian political system, simply painting him out of the picture seems unrealistic.
Billionaire presidential hopeful Mikhail Prokhorov, who publicly trashed Surkov in September before being removed by the Kremlin from his leadership of the Right Cause Party, believes Surkov’s dismissal was just another in the latest series of meaningless reshuffles in the Kremlin hierarchy. “They are just moving people from one place to another,” he told The New York Times on December 27. “If they’re serious, I wonder why instead of sacking a series of ineffective officials, they are making these strange rearrangements and appointments.”
But the move is indeed one of several official movements in the upper echelons of the Kremlin during the past week or so that have seen Putin allies fan out to positions of power. Putin loyalist and longtime Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov stepped down recently and was replaced by former Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, in turn, was replaced with another staunch Putin ally, former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Some interpreted the Kremlin’s reshuffle as a response to the growing tide of street protests over the allegedly falsified December 4 Duma elections, though its effect is unlikely to be significant.
Experts believe that, despite the “myth” of his deep influence, Surkov is indeed on his way out. Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider and independent political expert, said the ideologue lost out in a power struggle with his successor, Vyacheslav Volodin, formerly the head of Putin’s governmental staff, for the prime minister’s patronage. “Volodin has managed to distance Vladislav Surkov from Vladimir Putin’s body…Vladimir Putin now trusts Volodin more than Surkov, so he appointed him top political manager of Russia for the coming period,” he said.
Moreover, Belkovsky noted, Surkov was used to a position of power that he used, in part, to craft the enduring myth surrounding him and his influence within the Kremlin. “Now, he has got just a branch where everything is unclear,” he said. “There is no concept of modernization yet, there is no modernization budget – nobody understands what it is – and so this new position is much lower, much less influential than the previous one.”
Others claim Surkov’s reassignment completes a process of political reconsolidation designed to shore up power during a time of greater political turmoil. “It is necessary now that all political affairs and processes run straight through Putin,” Alexei Makarkin, the president of the Center for Political Technologies, told Gazeta.ru. “Ivanov and Volodin,” two proven and longtime Putin loyalists, “will now manage the administration.”