Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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, Gazeta.ru 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 (http://larussophobe.wordpress.com/category/racism/) 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 -- http://dyingrussia.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/stunning-rejection-of-navalny-in-latest-polls/). 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.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014


09:09 November 21, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:

Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)


16:55 November 19, 2014


Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014


MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014


Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014


14:47 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)


President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

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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