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.