What is it with Vladislav Surkov?
The reclusive presidential aide, widely known as the Kremlin's "gray cardinal" and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has been making regular forays into the spotlight in recent weeks -- a telling sign that something is brewing in the Kremlin.
The flurry of activity has fueled speculation that the Kremlin's top ideologue is scrambling to restore faith in the regime amid a devastating economic crisis.
"Surkov is the architect of a political system that is coming undone at the seams," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"When this process began following the [economic] crisis, Surkov said that there was no need for radical change, that all we needed to do was wait for everything to fall back into place. Now, it is becoming clear that things are not returning to normal on their own and that the system must be somehow reshaped."
End Of The Social Contract
The global economic downturn has hit Russia's energy-based economy particularly hard, bankrupting factories, stalling construction, and prompting angry citizens to take to the streets over lost jobs and unpaid wages.
Until now, the bulk of Russians had been happy to give up a measure of freedom in return for prosperity.
But the economic crisis, by unraveling this so-called social contract, has shaken the very foundations of the "power vertical," the top-down political system built by Surkov over the past decade at the behest of then-President Putin.
Surkov, whose official title is first deputy chief of staff of the president, for years operated largely behind the scenes. But he has recently emerged in a far more public role, and has surprised many by using his forays to openly advocate liberal reform.
It's a striking departure from his trademark concept of "sovereign democracy," which critics view as a set of Putin-era measures aimed at consolidating Kremlin control and undermining civil liberties.
It also raises question about where Surkov's allegiances now lie: with his former boss, the still powerful Putin, or with President Dmitry Medvedev, widely seen as more liberal than his predecessor?
Surkov's liberalization efforts certainly fit the mood of the moment, and not only in Russia. In an interview with the Associated Press on the eve of his visit to Russia this week, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared intent on driving a wedge through the Putin-Medvedev tandem, and made no secret of his preference for Medvedev -- praising the latter's openness while criticizing Putin's "outdated" Cold War rhetoric.
It was during Obama's visit that Surkov was appointed to a bilateral committee overseeing Russian-U.S. relations. He was named co-head of the commission's working group on civil society, sparking an outcry from Russian rights activists.
The New 'Liberal'
That appointment was just the latest step in what appears to be a professional makeover for Surkov. In April, he became the chairman of a Russian commission aimed at easing a tough law on nongovernmental organizations -- a law that he had himself helped draft.
In June, he hosted conciliatory talks with leaders of opposition parties.
Addressing young State Duma deputies just days later, Surkov urged the ruling United Russia party, which heavily dominates parliament and the broader political scene, to reach out to other parties.
In that speech, Surkov explained that Russia's political structure had matured, and that liberalization was the next logical step in the process of establishing a stable, democratic, multiparty system in Russia.
His seeming transformation may prove startling to Moscow's political elite.
Surkov oversaw a range of unpopular crackdowns on dissent during the Putin era -- most notoriously the Kremlin campaign to rein in regional leaders, whose popular election was scrapped in 2004, and the controversial legislation that placed the activities and funding of nongovernmental groups under strict state control.
Still, many Russians share his original notion that "Russian democracy" is best established step by step, from above.
"He is a clever man and he understands the situation; this can't be denied," says Sergei Filatov, the head of the presidential administration under Boris Yeltsin. "One can agree with him on a number of things because any national transformation comes at a huge price, which creates tensions and resistance."
Filatov suggests Surkov is "trying to perform this transformation gradually."
"Of course, what's happening is disgusting to watch because it's not democracy," he adds, "but on the other hand, democracy needs to be built. On its own, it will take many, many years to come."
Just A Facade?
Others, however, doubt the Kremlin's commitment to democracy.
Surkov's liberalization drive, they say, is nothing more than an attempt by Putin and his hard-line entourage to save its skin amid the most severe and sustained grassroots protest it has ever faced.
"The political system's liberalization is inevitable, it's already taking place," Petrov says. "But it's taking place as a reaction to the current changes [and] it's driven by the system's urge to survive, to meet the emerging challenges. If the system is unable to radically modernize, it will simply lose control and be replaced by another system."
Petrov says Surkov could end up making mere cosmetic changes instead of radically rethinking the political structure which he so meticulously assembled.
A sign of this may be Surkov's high-profile visit last month to the Russian region of Bashkortostan, just days after regional leader Murtaza Rakhimov -- himself a United Russia member -- publicly lamented the lack of political diversity in the country and blasted the level of centralization as "worse than in Soviet times."
Although Surkov insisted that the visit had been planned long ago, many saw it as a move to publicly chastise Rakhimov over his unprecedented show of disobedience and patch up the rifts emerging within United Russia over how to handle the economic crisis.
Kremlin critics say ousting Surkov is the only way to lift Russia out of its political impasse, given his role in shaping the now-embattled "power vertical."
"I think Surkov is a very dangerous man for the country, a man who manically tries to control all political and social processes taking place in the country," says Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement. "This is a very dangerous trait for a politician. Surkov plays a very tragic role in our country. He is largely responsible for the negative centralization of power in recent years. I think everyone will celebrate when this person is sacked."
Surkov has long been the bete noire of Russia's opposition.
He is seen as the man behind Nashi, the combative pro-Kremlin youth group, and is thought to wield huge influence over both houses of parliament as well as the country's judicial system.
Relatively young -- his official biography puts him at just 44 years -- Surkov has an impressive career behind him. He was a senior executive for former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and oligarch Mikhail Fridman throughout the 1990s, and briefly served as deputy director of a state-run television channel before being appointed presidential deputy chief of staff in 1999.
In 2005, Surkov watched silently as his former benefactor Khodorkovsky was sentenced to eight years in prison on fraud charges after a legal onslaught widely seen as politically motivated, earning him the reputation of a cynical opportunist in opposition circles.
'Prince Of Darkness'
"Surkov does everything he can to inflate his own role. In fact, he is a half-baked entertainer who thinks he is the prince of darkness and the creator of Russia's backstage politics," says political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. "Surkov is a relatively young man who has already betrayed many people and caused massive harm to the country. He has a long, sated, comfortable, and shameful life ahead of him."
The secrecy surrounding him has done little to foster trust in Surkov.
But the inscrutable spin doctor seems to enjoy the various rumors and speculation swirling around him.
Four years ago, he stunned Russia by declaring that his father was Chechen and that he himself was born and spent his early childhood in Chechnya.
According to the Kremlin's official website, Surkov was born near Lipetsk, a city some 400 kilometers south of Moscow.
His revelation at the time was followed by reports in the Russian media that he changed his name from Aslambek Dudayev to the more Slavic Vladislav Surkov when he and his mother left Chechnya.
Despite his epithet of "gray cardinal," Surkov has proved a lot more colorful than his generally dull Kremlin colleagues.
He has written two albums for the popular Russian rock band Agata Kristi, for instance. Rumor has it that Surkov also pens best-selling thrillers under the pseudonym of G. A. Zotov.
While oppositionists and rights campaigners continue to call for his head, others say his ouster would do little to break the political stalemate.
There are suggestions that Surkov, the virtuoso political architect, might instead be co-opted to help build another, more democratic political edifice.
Some commentators say that Surkov, regardless of his past, could even play a central role in ushering in the much-awaited "thaw."
"I would not demonize Surkov or exaggerate his influence," says political analyst Petrov. "It would be more logical to use him and his team in a more constructive manner, because I don't see any other team capable of handling these problems more efficiently. As a political manager, as a person who deals with the problems of ruling authorities, he is probably one of the most efficient."
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report