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The Presidents, The Ideologist, And the Reset


President Dmitry Medvedev (foreground) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Kremlin

President Dmitry Medvedev (foreground) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Kremlin

U.S. President Barack Obama's overtures to Russian society at the Moscow summit are already causing tremors.

A group of prominent Russian human rights and civic activists have written an open letter to Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev protesting First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov's appointment as co-coordinator of a bilateral working group on civil society.

The working group, which will be coordinated on the U.S. side by Obama's senior Russia advisor Michael McFaul, is one of 13 that was established by Medvedev and Obama during this week's summit to foster closer cooperation between the two societies.

Not surprisingly, 22 activists who signed the letter are not pleased that Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologist -- and the godfather of "sovereign democracy" and the "power vertical" -- will be helping to coordinate cooperation between Russian and American NGOs (you can read the letter in the original Russian here):

An Appeal To Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama From Representatives Of Russian Civil Society

July 7, 2009

Dear Mr. Presidents,

We the representatives of Russian civil society support the creation of a bilateral commission on issues of Russian-American relations.

At the same time, we were surprised to learn that that First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov has been appointed to coordinate civil society issues from the Russian side.

Vladislav Surkov is associated with the most negative tendencies in the development of democracy in Russia in recent years: the rollback of press freedoms, the liquidation of competition in the political system, and the purposeful erection of barriers against the development of civil society.

For this reason we ask you, Dmitry Anatolevich, to reconsider your decision to appoint him as the Russian co-coordinator for issues of civil society.

The letter was initiated by Yevgeny Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who has been publicly sparring with Surkov for months.

Here's what Gontmakher had to say in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service today:

We know very well who authored the political system that exists today in Russia, a system that has squeezed out all possibilities for discussion and which the opposition is seen as a sad spectacle. The opposition is not to blame for this. The guilty parties are those who have put them in this position and marginalized them. More than anybody, this is Mr. Surkov and his political technology.

And here's what Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights lawyer who heads the organization Civic Assistance, said in the same broadcast:

Surkov has become very active and he appears ready to work with us. We are also ready to work with him. But his position is very clear. He isn't among those people who take civil society seriously as the state's equal partner.

Gontmakher, Gannushkina and the other 20 signatories of the letter to Obama and Medvedev are right to be concerned. Surkov has certainly been no friend of civil society during his time in the Kremlin.

But at the same time, I can't help but think that something deeper might be going on here (and the operative word here is "might" -- I am far from convinced at this point).

I have always considered Surkov to be a good barometer of where the Russian elite is moving. He has, after all, managed to work for each of Russia's three post-Soviet presidents -- Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Medvedev. A less charitable interpretation, of course would be that he is a political chameleon with few principles who shifts with the political winds.

In any case, there appears to have been a subtle shift in Surkov's tone in recent weeks, most notably his appeal for United Russia to cooperate with other political parties and his appeals for more "degrees of freedom" in the rigid political system he helped create.

Skepticism is still in order, but I will nevertheless be keeping a close eye on Surkov and what he has to say -- and more importantly what he does -- in the weeks and months ahead.

UPDATE: My colleague Claire Bigg just wrote an thoughtful and thorough profile of Surkov that explores in greater detail some of the issues raised in this post. It is well worth a read. Click here for more.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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