Monday, August 29, 2016

The Power Vertical

The End Of The Surkov Era: The System Eats Its Architect

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) listens to Vladislav Surkov.
President Dmitry Medvedev (left) listens to Vladislav Surkov.
Formally, Vladislav Surkov's departure as deputy Kremlin chief of staff to become deputy prime minister is a lateral move. In reality, it marks the end of an era.
This is because in addition to leaving the Kremlin for the White House, Surkov is also changing his brief -- from the regime's ideologist in charge of the political system to the official overseeing modernization.
Surkov was the architect of Vladimir Putin's "power vertical." He was stage director of Russia's simulated and tightly controlled multiparty system. He coined the term "sovereign democracy" and put it into practice.
And now he's moving on. "Stabilization devours its children," he said wryly in remarks to Interfax. “I am too odious for this brave new world.”
Before I get into what I think this all means, some credit where credit is due.
While I was preparing a post last week on Surkov's interview with "Izvestia" -- in which he said those protesting against the government deserve respect and that the authorities should "respond benevolently" to them -- I became engaged in a brief and collegial debate on Twitter with the ever-astute Kevin Rothrock over at A Good Treaty.
Kevin saw signs that Surkov was on his way out. I disagreed. Just for the record, he was right and I was wrong. I didn't see this coming and dismissed the chatter in the Russian press suggesting that it was imminent. I have always considered Surkov central to the Putin system and couldn't imagine anybody else as its choreographer.
Now that choreographer will be Vyacheslav Volodin, a longtime Putin loyalist (who was chief of staff of his government) who will take over Surkov's formal title at the Kremlin as well as his political portfolio.
So what does it all mean? 
In remarks to "Kommersant-FM," former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin suggested it was a step in the direction of reform -- a “serious bid to renew the political system” that both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to:
This means that political reform is continuing and we are seeing a new and very important aspect of it. Surkov has been in the Kremlin for a very long time and was the man who directed all of the Kremlin's political technologies. I consider him one of the designers of the system. Now the system is being reconsidered. Other organizers are needed, with other views on the political system.
Kudrin's benevolent view, as informed as it is, is not universally shared. 
Despite the fact that Surkov is reviled by many in the protest movement as the architect of fixed elections and a simulated democracy, he has been making conciliatory noises since the December 4 elections. 
He has urged dialogue with the demonstrators and sought ways to channel the urban middle class discontent into the political system. Prior to the elections, he had been pushing for an expansion of the managed pluralism in the State Duma by bringing in more parties.
But as "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported today, he was badly outmaneuvered by Volodin, who emerged as his bitter rival in the elite and who orchestrated the creation of Putin's National Front:
Remember that in the summer Volodin essentially challenged Surkov when he initiated the creation of the All-Russian Popular Front for Vladimir Putin. There were a lot of questions about the Popular Front. But now, after the December elections made it clear that United Russia has lost its popularity in society, the Popular Front is the only real political technology and political base for Putin's presidential campaign.
Citing unidentified officials, reported today that Surkov's replacement by Volodin means that the Kremlin is planning to play hardball with the protest movement.
Likewise, speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted that while Surkov prefers to utilize subterfuge, diversion, and intrigue as political tools, Volodin's methods are more direct.
"Volodin just runs over anyone between him and his goal," he said. "The authorities are moving away from Surkov's methods of organizing elections. Now, whoever is opposed to them will get smacked in the head. This is a clear sign that the authorities are moving toward more stringent methods."
We'll have to wait and see whether Kudrin's optimistic assessment or Oreshkin's darker scenario will prove correct. But Russia is showing no signs of quieting down for the traditional holiday break.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladislav Surkov,VYacheslav Volodin

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 28, 2011 20:58
You know Brian, once burned, twice shy. One would think that if you were wrong about Surkov leaving, you might be little less sure of yourself in claiming that he IS leaving. I mean, did it ever occur to you that this transfer might simply be way of trying to pacify the protesters with an empty gesture, leaving Surkov doing all the things he always did but now behind closed doors rather than openly, while telling the protesters they've been listened to?

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
December 28, 2011 21:32
Yes, Volodin can do the same kind of choreography and managed democracy -- and worse. And the TV coverage of the demonstrations, miraculously, overnight, is just such an example of managed democracy.

But, Surkov isn't really on his way out, he's been made deputy prime minister, after all. That is, yes, his face has to be retired from the scene strategically for a time but when you're grey cardinal, it doesn't matter what your technical title is. It may also be useful to appear to be gracefully exiting and reflecting on the managed revolution eating its managers, not its children.

The signs that Surkov was on his way out may have been strategically placed by the Kremlin as part of a complex narrative we're not seeing all of -- to make it appear so. I'm not so sure you're wrong, in other words.

A man who managed to rise to the pinnacle of power after his boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky went to jail isn't somebody who is going to be "spending more time with his family." After all, his first position in government was with Yeltsin as deputy chief of staff of the president in 1999 -- before the Putin machine.

Just think: how many times has Gleb Pavlovsky come and gone from the Kremlin?

by: Frank
December 30, 2011 03:32
One senses that for whatever his skills, Surkov has detractors within United Russia. Hence, the current political situation makes him a target. Have periodically come across off record comments about how at times, Surkov comes across as a bit of a control freak - who gets involved in things that are arguably better left to some others.

On the matter of utilizing personnel, United Russia would be wise to critically review how the likes of Pavlovsky and Markov have performed in "spin doctor" situations.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 30, 2011 10:43
Russians are already rejecting the crazy strategy adopted by Navalny, demanding a rerun of Duma elections so (even) more seats can be given to crazy nationalists and Communists.

Meanwhile, Navalny has STILL not said he will run for the presidency or support any specific opposition candidate for the office, nor has he embraced any reasonable opposition party. His movement is ENTIRELY limited to a tiny fraction of Moscow's population, with a limited social stratum, and it has no understandable platform. His recent claim to produce 2 million on the streets of Moscow is as disturbing as his latent racism. If this is the best Russia can do in seeking to prevent Putin from becoming president for life, there is no hope for the country.
In Response

by: Frank
December 30, 2011 12:31
As stated by you, the termed "latest racism" is hypocritical in its irony.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
January 02, 2012 12:00
You're right, it is ironic. Because anyone who has read our blog knows that while we have, for more than five years, tirelessly crusaded for race justice in Russia, being one of the strongest voices in the world on that topic ( Russia's own activists are lily-white, predominantly male, and permeated throughout with racist sentiments, most particularly Navalny (who has virtually no support at all as a candidate -- Your attempt to throw mud at us by suggesting that because we harshly criticize the malignant Russian masses who continue to support Putin (his support is markedly rising the more active Navalny becomes) we are somehow "racist" is typical pro-Kremlin propaganda, exactly the same kind that was issued in Soviet times. It's ignorant, illiterate, and ridiculous, especially coming from somebody who does not even have his own blog.
In Response

by: Frank
January 03, 2012 05:36
Yout toilet of as blog has (in the collective sense) stated numerous instances of negative comments along the lines of: Russians are...

Were that stated against some other groups, YOU would more likely be called a bigot by a good number of hypocrites in media, academia and body politic.

Such is the ethically imperfect situation that's simultaneously evident and downplayed.
In Response

by: Frank
January 03, 2012 18:04
That's: your toilet of a blog.

The simultaneous mantra about "Russian racism" (real and not so real), silence on anti-Rusisan racism, while encouraging the latter is an otherwise noticeable reality that gets hushed up in certain circles.

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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