Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

Surkov’s Last Stand

Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
It’s more than fitting that the circumstances surrounding Vladislav Surkov’s sudden exit from the halls of power continue to be shrouded in mystery a week after the fact.

The master of political subterfuge, the architect of the make-believe democracy, the creator of faux parties and imitation social movements, of course, would have it no other way.

A week after Surkov’s departure as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was announced, we still don’t even know for sure when exactly he actually tendered his resignation, which was officially announced on May 8.

The Kremlin’s preferred narrative: Surkov resigned on May 7, right after President Vladimir Putin publicly dressed down the government for its poor performance. That is what Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

But Surkov is telling another story.  He insists that he tendered his resignation on April 26 of his own accord, but the Kremlin waited nearly two weeks to announce it.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was typically wishy-washy on this point. His press secretary said Surkov discussed his resignation with the premier on both April 26 and May 7.

Does this really matter? Actually, probably not. But it is quite telling. The man who for over a decade masterminded Russia’s political narrative on the Kremlin’s behalf is not allowing his old masters to write the script of his banishment.

The authorities couldn’t even get their story straight about who would replace him.

The government first announced that Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich would be Surkov’s replacement. They then walked this back. Dvorkovich would just temporarily handle Surkov’s ministerial duties. His job as government chief of staff would be shared by two of his deputies: Aleksandra Levistskaya and Sergei Prikhodko. 

There was just one problem with this: Levistskaya, it seems, resigned back in April. Oops. Finally, days later, the government announced that Prikhodko would temporarily serve as acting chief of staff alone.

"It’s quite apparent...that the deputy prime minister’s departure was unexpected and that the Kremlin and the government do not have a candidate for the vacancy," the daily "Kommersant" wrote.

The reasons for his departure also remain murky.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov told journalists that it was related to the government’s failure to implement Putin’s decrees, which was Surkov’s responsibility -- but few are buying that explanation.

Most media focused on the fact that Surkov fell out of favor with Putin back in 2011 when he supported keeping Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin for a second term as president.

Speculation also zeroed in on a very public conflict he had with the powerful Investigative Committee, which is examining alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and technological center, a flagship Medvedev project that Surkov supervises.

The probe alleges that Skolkovo’s Senior Vice President Aleksei Beltyukov illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. Press reports from Kremlin-friendly outfits suggested that this illustrated Surkov’s ties with the opposition. 

In a speech at the London School of Economics on May 2, Surkov criticized the investigation, sparking a harsh response from Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin. In an article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Markin ridiculed Surkov’s "pitiful moaning from London," adding that it "would not stop the Investigative Committee from doing its job."

And some accounts simply suggested that, after masterminding high Kremlin intrigue for so long, Surkov was just bored with the mundane work of day-to-day governance.

Surkov himself was typically cryptic about what is really going on. "I’ll tell you about it later, when it is appropriate," he told "Kommersant."

So is Surkov playing some deeper game here? Mikhail Rostovsky, chief political analyst for the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," thinks so.  

"Russia’s former chief puppet master has refused to play the role of the loser in Putin’s puppet theater," Rostovsky wrote this week.

"I venture to suggest that the government chief of staff’s departure was not part of Putin’s plans," Rostovsky continued. "Why? Because in the political drama that Putin is now playing out, each person has been assigned his own role. The president’s own role was to constantly kick the government and exclaim: 'You losers! You are failing to execute my edicts!'"

And the role of the government and its chief of staff "was to make feeble attempts to justify itself and to promise to mend its ways."

Using the government as a lightning rod allowed Putin to deflect criticism for any crisis that may arise -- like the economic downturn many are predicting -- and to reinforce his image as the strong national leader.

"Surkov has, to a degree, wrecked Putin’s game," Rostovsky wrote. "Putin can, of course, continue to use Medvedev’s Cabinet as a whipping boy. But it seems that Surkov’s departure has weakened the government to such an extent that it will now be difficult to treat it without a pitying smile...Putin has discredited the government so successfully that Medvedev no longer has the strength to bear the burden of responsibility. And that burden now falls on the president’s shoulders."

I think Rostovsky is on the mark here. Surkov, it appears, has torn off the mask. The master of make-believe politics is, to a degree, putting an end to the era of make believe.

Which completes a circle that began with the resignation of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin back in the fall of 2011, shortly after the infamous Putin-Medvedev "castling" was announced at the United Russia party congress.

That, of course, was also not in Putin’s plans -- and it was a harbinger of future turbulence in the ruling elite.

As I have blogged in the past, Surkov and Kudrin are "managers" who owe their positions in the elite to specific skill sets -- as opposed to "shareholders" like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who have a very tangible stake in the status quo. 

The managers sensed that Russian society was changing and that the political system needed to open up to some extent to accommodate that change -- which made them potential allies of the opposition.

They lost that argument and now the heavyweights among them appear to be defecting. Which raises the question of whether the ongoing Cold War in the Kremlin is about to get a little hotter. 

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the May 17 edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I discuss the fallout from Surkov's exit with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin or RFE/RL's Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags: Vladislav Surkov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Andras Toth-Czifra from: Brussels
May 16, 2013 07:13
It's a very interesting point you raise there, Brian. Putin does seem to be "overdoing" the pressure on the government. I am not sure whether this will ultimately lead to Putin having to take full responsibility for the "ruchnoye upravleniye", though. But one thing is sure: he might navigate himself into a very uneasy situation.

In my blog last week I pointed at an article from 2011 in Vzglyad that argued that Surkov was an 'enterprising' political manager who was ready to take his own initiatives. In 2011, I added that he was unhappy with the emergence of a system that took no other initiatives than Putin's and that in fact he deliberately jumped the ship then as well, just as he did now. No wonder commentators in Kommersant's Ogonek last week argued that wherever Surkov went he would take up a job that was 'the most interesting' to him.

The point is that there are political managers of all kinds. Both Kudrin and Surkov were ones that fit a specific era. Surkov did try to find his new function in the government but Medvedev was all to eager to assume the role of Putin's "whipping boy" as you so rightly put it.

It will be very decisive whether or not Medvedev recognises that he still has somewhere to go. If he thinks he does not, he may believe that the only way for him to preserve his access to resources is to stay on as Putin's punchbag. As I argued before, at this point Putin cannot replace him with anyone who is politically strong enough to 'bear the burden of responsibility' because that someone would inevitably start to think about himself as THE successor. With Medvedev in the PM's seat, at least it's obvious to everyone that the decision will be taken later.

My full comments on Surkov are available on my blog:

Also: will you be doing a podcast on Surkov?

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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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