One day the powerful deputy Kremlin deputy chief of staff is ridiculing suggestions that Russia needs to open up its political and economic system to deal with the ongoing economic crisis. On another he appears to be supporting that very idea, telling the ruling United Russia party that it needs to share power.
There is widespread agreement among Kremlin watchers that Surkov was somehow involved in the recent walkout in the State Duma by three "opposition" parties to protest alleged falsification in the October 11 local elections. But there is little agreement whether the move was initiated by Surkov to embarrass his foes, or an operation orchestrated by Surkov's opponents designed to weaken him.
Confused yet? Good.
Surkov made news again this week with an interview with the weekly "Itogi" in which he warned that Russia was falling dangerously behind in economic development and risked becoming a "resource power" if the economy is not modernized. In the same interview, Surkov also argued against liberalizing the political system, warning that it could plunge Russia into chaos.
So what is Surkov up to?
In a recently published four-part series titled "The Kremlin Wars," Stratfor.com offers up one possible answer.
According to Stratfor, the Kremlin is divided into two roughly equal clans -- one headed by Surkov and one led by his archrival, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin:
It is the classic balance of power arrangement. So long as these two clans scheme against each other, [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's position as the ultimate power is not threatened and the state itself remains strong -- and not in the hands of one power-hungry clan or another.
In an effort to inflict a decisive defeat on Sechin and his "siloviki" clan, Surkov has reportedly teamed up with a group of technocratic economic liberals who are close to President Dmitry Medvedev.
This group of economists and specialists in civil law, who have been dubbed the "civiliki," include Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Sperbank head German Gref, Economics Minister Elvira Nabiullina, and Natural Resources Minister Trutnev.
As I have written here, the civiliki also include Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov and other lower-level officials who studied law with Medvedev in St. Petersburg.
Stratfor argues that the economic crisis has led the Russian authorities to rethink the statist and top heavy economic model dominated by Sechin and the siloviki:
Surkov is less interested in economic reform than in buttressing his own power vis-a-vis Sechin. But, according to Stratfor, he sees the value in using the economic reforms proposed by the civiliki to purge Sechin and his allies from the commanding heights of the Russian economy.
One hint that something along these lines might be under way came in August when Medvedev instructed Prosecutor General Yury Chaika to open an investigation into Russia's massive state corporations, a key power base for Sechin.
If Surkov is indeed gearing up for a decisive battle with Sechin and has teamed up with the civiliki to pull it off, this would explain his increased enthusiasm for economic reform. And the last thing he probably wants in such a situation is the unpredictability that any political liberalization would bring (thus the warnings about chaos).
The wild card in the equation, of course, is Putin, who would need to sign off on any campaign of this magnitude -- especially one targeting a close ally like Sechin.
I'm skeptical for the moment. But Stratfor argues convincingly that the economic crisis has shaken up the elite to the degree that such a move is at least plausible:
Whether it turns out to be right or wrong, whole Stratfor series is thought provoking and well worth a read.
-- Brian Whitmore