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The Power Vertical

A Comeback For The Gray Cardinal?

President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with Vladislav Surkov in October, two months before Surkov's resignation as first deputy Kremlin chief of staff.
President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with Vladislav Surkov in October, two months before Surkov's resignation as first deputy Kremlin chief of staff.
Since falling out with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last year and getting pushed out of his job as deputy Kremlin chief of staff in December, Vladislav Surkov has been languishing in political purgatory. Is he now on his way back?

Once the maestro of Russia's managed democracy and the regime's unofficial ideologist, Surkov was reviled by the opposition for his alleged role in falsifying the December 4 State Duma election results -- and derided by Team Putin for not fixing the vote effectively enough.
And this made him the perfect scapegoat. When mass demonstrations against the regime broke out, Surkov was unceremoniously thrown under the bus and replaced in the Kremlin by his archrival, Vyacheslav Volodin.
Surkov has since been relegated to a low-profile and unglamorous deputy prime minister's post, ostensibly in charge of innovation, education, and culture. But according to a report in on March 15, President Dmitry Medvedev wants to make him his chief of staff when he assumes the premiership after Putin returns to the Kremlin in May.
According to an unidentified Kremlin official cited by, Surkov "laid low for about a month and a half after his resignation from the Kremlin, but has since begun to recruit people and make plans."
The official adds, however, that Putin is not exactly onboard with the idea:
Medvedev personally lobbied for the appointment of Surkov as his chief of staff. He wants a real government and he needs Surkov in this post. Putin, by contrast, wants to leave [current government chief of staff Anton] Vaino in place, keep the chief of staff post as purely technical, and not have it merged with a deputy prime minister's portfolio. Putin does not want to let anybody in the new government, including the prime minister, gain too much political influence.
The disagreement over Surkov's future is part of a larger struggle over whether Medvedev's future government will be little more than a weak appendage of Putin's Kremlin or a force for modernization and reform. And that battle is closely connected to the broader -- and perennial -- conflict between the technocratic and "siloviki" wings of the elite over Russia's direction.

As I blogged earlier in the week, the technocrats are angling to have Medvedev's modernization agenda actually implemented, while the siloviki want to preserve state capitalism, prevent the privatization of the energy industry, and turn the clock back to 2007.
Despite being the architect of Putin's authoritarian system of managed democracy, Surkov showed signs of aligning himself with the technocrats in the latter part of his tenure in the Kremlin. He reportedly favored Medvedev serving a second term as president and was pushing plans to (carefully and tentatively) open up the political system.
Surkov also has a vested interest in the success of the modernization agenda, according to some analysts.

"Surkov is credited with the idea of making innovation one of the main themes of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency," journalist Andrei Veselov wrote in the weekly 'Ekspert" in January. "Now he needs to prove in practice that it was not just a PR trick but something with real substance."
Surkov's future is one barometer of where things may be going, but not the only one.
Medvedev is trying to get a number of his closest allies into top government posts, including two of his key economic advisers, Arkady Dvorkovich and Igor Yurgens. He has also long been seeking to get his old law-school classmate, current Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov, appointed prosecutor-general to replace Yury Chaika -- an unlikely development that would mark a major victory for the lame-duck president.

Another indicator will be whether current Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the siloviki clan and Medvedev's main nemesis, remains in the government or follows Putin to the Kremlin.

The smart money, of course, is on Putin winning most -- if not all -- of these battles. Medvedev is a diminished figure and he never had the bureaucratic muscle to truly push his own agenda (and it is not entirely clear that he ever really wanted to).
But this is also about much more than Putin and Medvedev. A good chunk of the elite, and about half of society, wants political and economic reform. And influential figures outside of government -- like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov -- plan to push hard for it.
(In this sense, Kudrin's eventual role could prove crucial, and will be the subject of a post in the near future. A close personal friend of Putin's, he could influence the president-elect. His personal animosity toward Medvedev, however, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to work with the future premier.)

With society divided and the elite fractured, it will nevertheless be very difficult for Putin to govern in 2012 as if it were still 2007, regardless of how the battle over the staffing of the government turns out.
-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated with minor tweaks throughout

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Vladislav Surkov,Dmitry Medvedev

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jack from: US
March 16, 2012 21:30
Brian writes intriguing articles. However the things which seem like James Bond's plot, are in reality a banality. Most of conspiracy-type developments are well explained by incompetence and stupidity combined with corruption or personal and tribal agendas. As I pointed out on multiple occasions, Russian political machine is trying hard to reproduce the US-style one-party system where the populace is presented with carefully per-selected list of "candidates", where "elections" are staged sham shows, and most people are fed and entertained well enough to believe that they have a "democracy". In reality US has just one party - US government, a ruling mafia which stages "elections", picks and chooses who will be the next Obama-style talking head as president. This is a dream setup for Russian political elite. The problem for them is, Russia did not degrade yet all the way into Orwellian society. Russian people can express themselves freely without being afraid of being labeled racist, anti-Semite, or similar. And Russian people do not need to lower their voice when speaking about politics and their government, like "free" Americans do.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
March 17, 2012 01:25
Ah, the truth comes out! So Jack, you harbor views that MOST other rational people would consider racist, anti-Semite, bigoted, etc. but you don't like being labelled such is that correct? So naturally, you consider Russians more "free" than Americans because they can be racist or anti-Semite without any repercussions or accountability. Interesting, and yet you still consider yourself an American? Jack, when was the last time you read the US Constitution? The rights of Jews, Muslims, Catholics or any other religion are enshrined in its meaning. On the other hand, your last sentence is entirely wrong. Russians have always had to lower their voices when speaking about politics to the point that many will not even do it. Over the years, Russians have developed "dual personalities" where they express themselves differently in public than they really feel just to avoid some sort of persecution by authorities. "Kitchen talk" is where people fearing persecution express their true feelings--inside the privacy of their own homes. BTW, freedom of speech is also enshrined in the US Constitution and whatever views you express are protected. Not the case in Russia...

by: John from: Australia
March 17, 2012 03:03
Thanks for the humourous article! It helps keep the mystique around Russia when we see these stories of fiction. It's funny how western writers with no knowledge of Russian society can produce such articles.
It is actually possible to travel to Russia and to read in English the work of Surkov. Nothing really mysterious about any of it at all. I like the bit about a split society. Sure the silent majority, mostly content with their lot and what the masses call the mink coat minority!! How do I know this? I have family in Russia who we communicate with most days.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
March 18, 2012 01:32
We tried to tell you that Surkov wasn't going anywhere -- you wouldn't listen. PS he was put in charge of *religion* as well -- think of the damage he can do.

So no surprise here, and Pavlovsky will be back before you know it, too.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
March 18, 2012 13:00
This article reminds one of how utterly wrong the breathless reporting about "change in Russia" really was. When Surkov departed, we were hip-deep in frothing predictions of Putin's imminent demise and the waking of a whole new political class in Russia. Now, we have watched the protest movement go from 100,000 at a demonstration to 10,000 to just 500 and we have seen that the only person who matters in Putin's Russia is Putin.

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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