Once the maestro of Russia's managed democracy and the regime's unofficial ideologist, Surkov was reviled by the opposition for his alleged role in falsifying the December 4 State Duma election results -- and derided by Team Putin for not fixing the vote effectively enough.
And this made him the perfect scapegoat. When mass demonstrations against the regime broke out, Surkov was unceremoniously thrown under the bus and replaced in the Kremlin by his archrival, Vyacheslav Volodin.
Surkov has since been relegated to a low-profile and unglamorous deputy prime minister's post, ostensibly in charge of innovation, education, and culture. But according to a report in Gazeta.ru on March 15, President Dmitry Medvedev wants to make him his chief of staff when he assumes the premiership after Putin returns to the Kremlin in May.
According to an unidentified Kremlin official cited by Gazeta.ru, Surkov "laid low for about a month and a half after his resignation from the Kremlin, but has since begun to recruit people and make plans."
The official adds, however, that Putin is not exactly onboard with the idea:
The disagreement over Surkov's future is part of a larger struggle over whether Medvedev's future government will be little more than a weak appendage of Putin's Kremlin or a force for modernization and reform. And that battle is closely connected to the broader -- and perennial -- conflict between the technocratic and "siloviki" wings of the elite over Russia's direction.
As I blogged earlier in the week, the technocrats are angling to have Medvedev's modernization agenda actually implemented, while the siloviki want to preserve state capitalism, prevent the privatization of the energy industry, and turn the clock back to 2007.
Despite being the architect of Putin's authoritarian system of managed democracy, Surkov showed signs of aligning himself with the technocrats in the latter part of his tenure in the Kremlin. He reportedly favored Medvedev serving a second term as president and was pushing plans to (carefully and tentatively) open up the political system.
Surkov also has a vested interest in the success of the modernization agenda, according to some analysts.
"Surkov is credited with the idea of making innovation one of the main themes of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency," journalist Andrei Veselov wrote in the weekly 'Ekspert" in January. "Now he needs to prove in practice that it was not just a PR trick but something with real substance."
Surkov's future is one barometer of where things may be going, but not the only one.
Medvedev is trying to get a number of his closest allies into top government posts, including two of his key economic advisers, Arkady Dvorkovich and Igor Yurgens. He has also long been seeking to get his old law-school classmate, current Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov, appointed prosecutor-general to replace Yury Chaika -- an unlikely development that would mark a major victory for the lame-duck president.
Another indicator will be whether current Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the siloviki clan and Medvedev's main nemesis, remains in the government or follows Putin to the Kremlin.
The smart money, of course, is on Putin winning most -- if not all -- of these battles. Medvedev is a diminished figure and he never had the bureaucratic muscle to truly push his own agenda (and it is not entirely clear that he ever really wanted to).
But this is also about much more than Putin and Medvedev. A good chunk of the elite, and about half of society, wants political and economic reform. And influential figures outside of government -- like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov -- plan to push hard for it.
(In this sense, Kudrin's eventual role could prove crucial, and will be the subject of a post in the near future. A close personal friend of Putin's, he could influence the president-elect. His personal animosity toward Medvedev, however, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to work with the future premier.)
With society divided and the elite fractured, it will nevertheless be very difficult for Putin to govern in 2012 as if it were still 2007, regardless of how the battle over the staffing of the government turns out.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: This post has been updated with minor tweaks throughout