Thursday, October 02, 2014


The Power Vertical

Target: Surkov

"Psst. You're in trouble."
"Psst. You're in trouble."
When photos of Vladislav Surkov hanging out and fishing with the powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov appeared online recently, it raised some eyebrows but was viewed mainly as an odd curiosity.

Kadyrov said Surkov, whose resignation as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was made public on May 8, spent this past weekend with him in Chechnya’s Itum-Kalinsky district, where the photos were taken.

Surkov "remains on the president's team and is ready to fulfill the tasks Vladimir Putin might give him" and "could be useful for the state in any role," Kadyrov added.

The two men are longtime allies, so Kadyrov’s public demonstration of support wasn't exactly shocking. But in light of recent news reports, it has become more interesting -- and appears to be much more than a kind gesture to an old friend.

Surkov, according to the latest round of media speculation, could soon become a target in the ongoing criminal probe into alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and innovation center -- the flagship project Dmitry Medvedev initiated during his presidency to spur the modernization of Russia's economy. As deputy prime minister, Surkov was responsible for overseeing the center.

"The Investigative Committee is very interested in the activities of former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov," Gazeta.ru reported this week, quoting unidentified Kremlin and law-enforcement sources.

The report added, quoting Skolkovo officials who have been called in for interrogation, that investigators appear particularly interested in "Surkov's role in administering the distribution of funds" from the center. "The nature of the questioning suggests that the goal is to prove he was involved with embezzlement," the publication wrote.

If Surkov is indeed in the Investigative Committee’s crosshairs, it would represent a significant escalation in the Kremlin's war on dissent -- expanding it from the opposition to also include their alleged collaborators among the elite. It would also mark a significant escalation in the cold war between the siloviki and technocratic wings of the elite that has been simmering since the Medvedev presidency.

As the Kremlin's chief ideologist during Putin's first two terms, Surkov was a key member of the president's inner circle. He was instrumental in devising both Putin’s tough-guy image and the faux system of "sovereign democracy" that legitimized his authoritarian rule.

Surkov fell out of favor with Putin during the period of the so-called tandem, when he endorsed keeping Medvedev in power for a second term as president and the introduction of more pluralism into the political system -- things the powerful siloviki clan of security-service veterans surrounding Putin hotly opposed.

For the time being, the criminal probe into Skolkovo alleges that the center's senior vice president, Aleksei Beltyukov, illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. But media reports suggest that this is just one piece of a larger case in which investigators are seeking to show that since his estrangement from Putin, Surkov has been involved in covertly funneling state funds to the opposition.

Kremlin-friendly political analyst Sergei Markov told Gazeta.ru that when antiregime protests broke out in December 2011, anti-Putin elements in the bureaucracy and the business elite used Skolkovo for precicely this purpose.

"Those who were in charge of this project are of course now falling under suspicion," Markov said. "Putin cannot give the impression that he will stand by quietly while people betray him behind his back."

Moreover, Surkov's relations with the siloviki faction of the elite, particularly powerful figures like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, have always been frosty at best. And now, it seems, they are out for revenge.

But going after a fish as big as Surkov would escalate the conflict within the elite to unprecedented levels and would require Putin's go-ahead. It is unclear whether he has given it.

Which puts those photos of Surkov and Kadyrov in context.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on May 24, when I will discuss the issues raised on the blog this week with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mark Galeotti of New York University, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Ramzan Kadyrov,Vladislav Surkov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Regular Joe from: USA
May 28, 2013 20:43
In the photo, Surkov has a striking similarity to Mr. Bean.

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MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP FOR OCTOBER 2, 2014

Good morning. Here are a few items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

MERKEL URGES PUTIN TO PRESS SEPARATISTS IN UKRAINE

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia has a duty to exert influence on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Merkel made the remark during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 1.

According to a German government spokesman, the two leaders expressed concerned that violence was still being used in Ukraine every day.

Merkel said the border between Ukraine and Russia needed to be monitored and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation had a big role to play in that. 

She said Germany would continue to support the OSCE mission in Ukraine, adding it could play an important role in planned local elections in the regions around Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Earlier, NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the cease-fire in Ukraine offers an opportunity but Russia still has the power to destabilize the country.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Reuters)

MOSCOW LINKS SUSPENSION OF STUDENT EXCHANGES TO GAY U.S. COUPLE

Russia's child-protection ombudsman has linked Moscow's decision to suspend participation in the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX)  to a gay American couple that established guardianship over a Russian high school student who was in the United States for the program.

Pavel Astakhov said on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RFdeti) on October 1 that Washington had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when  "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

Astakohov said a homosexual couple established illegal "guardianship" over the boy.

But the U.S. administrator of the program says the events described by Astakhov occurred after the child had completed the exchange program and that the student's host family was not a same-sex couple as Russian officials have implied.

U.S. Ambassador John Tefft expressed regret over Russia's decision to withdraw from next year's FLEX program.

(With reporting by TASS and Interfax)

NATO'S NEW CHIEF SAYS RUSSIA STILL ABLE TO DESTABILIZE UKRAINE

NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the cease-fire in Ukraine "offers an opportunity" but says Russia still has the power to destabilize the country. 

Stoltenberg, speaking on October 1 in Brussels at his first news conference as NATO leader, said Russia must comply with international law and demonstrate it is respecting its international obligations.

He said: "We see violations of the cease-fire" in Ukraine.

But the new NATO chief said he saw no contradiction between aspiring for a constructive relationship with Russia and being in favor of a strong NATO.

Stoltenberg, a former two-term Norwegian Prime Minister, is NATO's 13th secretary-general in the trans-Atlantic organization's 65-year existence.

He replaced Danish former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. 

(With additional reporting by Reuters and AP)

LAVROV SEES CHANCE TO RESUME TALKS WITH NORTH KOREA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting in Moscow with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on October 1 that he sees a possibility for six-party talks to resume on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

But Lavrov said the resumption of the talks "will take a certain amount of time – not immediately."

He said the main conditions are "to achieve from all sides a calm, balanced approach" and to avoid "any abrupt steps that would only polarize positions."

North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States began talks in 2003 with the aim of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

But Pyongyang withdrew in 2009 and indicated it would not abide by a 2005 pledge to abandon its nuclear programs.

Ri, who is on a 10-day visit to Russia, said a "long tradition of relations" between Moscow and Pyongyang is "bonded with blood."

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

And this, via Reuters:

RUSSIA GAS DUEL DEEPENS WITH SLOVAKIA SUPPLY CUT

By Michael Kahn and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The cat and mouse game between Europe and Russia on gas intensified on Wednesday with Slovakia saying its supply from Russia was down by a half and its prime minister calling the move part of a political fight.

Since September, Russia's state-controlled Gazprom has sent less-than-requested deliveries to Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary - after the European Union began sending gas to Ukraine - in a clear warning from Moscow ahead of the winter heating season which officially starts today, when the industry switches to higher pricing.

The 50 percent cut reported by Slovakia, a major transit point for Russian gas exports to Europe, was by far the deepest yet, and Prime Minister Robert Fico said he would call a crisis meeting of his government if the problems persisted.

Fico, who normally has warm relations with Russia and has criticised EU sanctions against it, said he saw political factors behind the cuts.

"The Russian side talks about technical problems, about the necessity of filling up storage for the winter season," Fico said. "I have used this expression and I will use it again: gas has become a tool in a political fight."

There was no immediate comment from Russian gas exporter Gazprom

Slovakia's western neighbour the Czech Republic became the latest former Soviet-bloc nation to experience reductions. RWE Czech Republic, its main gas importer, said it saw unspecified reductions on several days over the past week, although the flow seemed normal on Wednesday.

It was unlikely there will be any impact for now on consumers of gas in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the countries further West that receive it via there, because gas storage reservoirs throughout Europe are close to full.

As well as shipping Russian gas west, Slovakia also sends it east into Ukraine. That has irked Russia, which switched off gas deliveries to Ukraine to persuade Kiev to pay its arrears.

"Nobody should be surprised by what Russia does. They want to keep pressure on Ukraine... at the start of the heating season," said Michael LaBelle, a gas expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

Central European spot gas markets rose to over 25 euros ($31.52) per megawatt-hours (MWh), their highest levels since the Ukraine crisis broke out in February/March.

Russia is Europe's biggest supplier of natural gas, meeting almost a third of annual demand and in return, Gazprom receives around $80 billion in annual revenues from its European customers, making up the majority of its income.

Moscow halted gas flows to Ukraine three times in the past decade, in 2006, 2009 and since June this year, although this year gas for the EU via Ukraine has so far continued to flow.

Opening up gas flows eastward was part of the EU's response to Gazprom's decision to cut supplies to Kiev in June. Slovakia, Poland and Hungary can also send gas to Ukraine but so far deliveries have not been without incident.

Poland temporarily stopped deliveries to Ukraine last month after Warsaw said it was getting less gas from Russia than requested. Hungary stopped eastward supplies last week in order to fill its own storage tanks ahead of winter.

Slovakia, with the largest EU capacity to Ukraine, had maintained deliveries.

Analysts agree the moves are a warning to Europe that Russia is ready to retaliate should Brussels impose further sanctions on Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine.

"It (the Russian export reductions) could actually be in the end quite harmless. But the fact that they did not tell anyone in advance, (shows) that nobody should trust any explanation he or she gets, and that in itself is damning," Czech energy security ambassador Vaclav Bartuska told Reuters this week.

He added it would be foolish to expect gas to flow as usual through Ukraine this winter.

DEAL?

Traders have, however, pointed out that Russia's recent reductions to Europe, at least before the latest cuts to Slovakia, were within contractual allowances and came during times that EU gas storage tanks are well filled.

Gas Infrastructure Europe data show that the EU's gas storage sites are filled to an average of over 90 percent, compared to just 68 percent this time last year.

"Most of the EU has its gas tanks filled to the rims, so they don't need more gas at the moment, while Gazprom needs to still fill its domestic reserves ahead of the Russian winter, so I'm not surprised by its flow reductions to the EU, which were all within contractual allowances," one EU utility trader said.

While gas deliveries to Germany, Gazprom's biggest customer, should continue through the Nord Stream pipeline which bypasses Ukraine, the outlook is far less certain for central and southeastern European nations which receive most or all of their imports from Russia and via Ukraine.

To deal with a potential shortfall this winter, the European Union has prepared emergency plans and has also sought a compromise to safeguard winter supplies in a potential deal that would guarantee Kiev at least 5 billion cubic metres of Russian gas for the next six months if Ukraine made pre-payments.

The Russian energy ministry said on Wednesday that there would be not further gas talks with Ukraine and the European Commission this week. (1 US dollar = 0.7933 euro) (Additional reporting by Vera Eckert in Berlin; Writing by Henning Gloystein and Christian Lowe; Editing by William Hardy)

 

WHY COMPROMISE IN UKRAINE MIGHT BE IMPOSSIBLE

The always insightful -- and often provocative -- Alexander Motyl has a piece up at Huffington Post suggesting the Western and Russian positions on Ukraine are irreconcilable.

"Should the West therefore try to understand Russian perceptions even if it knows that they are completely wrong? Obviously, understanding Russian delusions can help the West and Ukraine craft a better response to Putin's expansionism. But it makes little sense to say that the West and Ukraine should try to accommodate these delusions in their search for peace in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.

Should the democratic world have accommodated Hitler's perceptions of Jews? Or of Germany's need for Lebensraum? Or of the innate superiority of the Aryan race? The questions are rhetorical, but they are exactly the ones we should be asking about Russian perceptions.

The implications for policy are clear. Finding a compromise under such conditions may be impossible. And agreeing to disagree may be the best one can possibly achieve. Russia currently controls the Crimea and one third of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Let it continue to do so. The West has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy and supports Ukraine. Let it also continue to do so. Finally, Ukraine has adopted a defensive position and appears intent on preventing further Russian incursions into its territory. It, too, should continue to do so.

There is no practical solution to the Russo-Ukrainian war. The most one can hope for is to "freeze" it and thereby transform hot war into cold war between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West. That cold war will continue as long as Putin remains in power and continues to promote his delusional views of the world." 

Read the whole piece here.

Semyon Guzman, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, says Vladimir Putin hasn't gone crazy -- he's just evil.

"Many really consider that he suffers from definite psychological illnesses,” Guzman wrote in a September 30 article (a big h/t to thei ndispensable Paul Goble for flagging this).  

"This is only a convenient explanation in the existing situation. Unfortunately, it is not correct.”

Putin's character traits, "ike those of a murderer, thief or other good for nothing, are not psychiatric phenomena but rather objects of the subjects of moral philosophy.” Guzman wrote. He added that Putin was "absolutely responsible" for his actions.

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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