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Russia’s Gray Cardinal Slips Away Into The Shadows

Then-Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov (left) is seen in February 2012 with Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, at a meeting on higher education in the Siberian city of Kurgan.
MOSCOW -- Vladislav Surkov was known as the Kremlin’s gray cardinal -- feared in the corridors of power and despised by the opposition. But the Russian deputy prime minister's surprise resignation on May 8 has them worried.

Surkov’s departure, observers say, signals the rising power of hard-line factions, the “siloviki,” who have zealously prosecuted the crackdown on the opposition since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency.

The resignation of the once-hugely influential Surkov, observers say, is a major scalp in the belt of the siloviki and confirms a shift to a more hard-nosed ruling style cementing under Putin.

“This is an alarming signal, and it means that the siloviki have got the upper hand,” human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov told Interfax.

Some opposition figures, too, have greeted Surkov's departure with alarm. Former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on May 8 portrayed it as the outcome of a battle between competing visions of Russia. He said the authorities “forced Surkov to quit, placing their bets entirely on the silovik structures.”

“There was a conflict between two styles of maintaining power," he said. “Some thought that power had to be maintained by force, while Surkov thought that carrying out political manipulations and trickery was more effective than putting people in jail.”

To be sure, the shift toward a more hard-line style of rule was already well under way. It began in December 2011 when the political system that Surkov was credited with constructing appeared to wobble as allegations of parliamentary election fraud brought thousands onto the streets of Moscow, starting a phase of unprecedented anti-Kremlin protests.

Putin soon moved Surkov out of the Kremlin administration in a move widely seen as a demotion. Surkov was later given the post of deputy prime minister in the Dmitry Medvedev cabinet and was replaced in the Kremlin administration by his longtime rival Vyacheslav Volodin, who is associated with the siloviki clan.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Vladimir Pribylovsky said that the accession of Volodin and the demise of Surkov, who was so instrumental in Putin’s first two terms, signal an ideological shift.

“Surkov used softer, indirect methods to twist arms and manage democracy," Pribylovsky said. "Volodin represents harder methods. It's always a fight for power and financial flows. But in this case there is the hint of something ideological -- [a shift] from the softer methods of rule and propaganda to the more tough and direct.”

All-Out Battle

Surkov's departure -- or, as many believe, “ouster” -- comes at a time of raging infighting between the ruling elites.

Officially, Surkov quit after failing to implement a raft of presidential decrees that Putin issued one year ago. But leading political analysts were skeptical of this explanation. They pointed instead to Surkov’s struggle with the powerful Investigative Committee, which spilled into the public domain spectacularly last week.

Speaking on a trip to London, Surkov issued a rare public attack on the Investigative Committee, an agency modeled after the FBI that reports directly to the Kremlin, for pressing a corruption probe into the Skolkovo innovation hub that Surkov was overseeing.

Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technology told "Izvestia" that Surkov opted to quit after realizing that further work in his post had “no prospects” given mounting pressure from rival elite power brokers. "Vladislav Surkov had tense relations with the Investigative Committee," Makarkin said. "He who has the president's ear has the last laugh. And [Putin] is on the side of the Investigative Committee."

In the last year the Investigative Committee has been on the front line of the crackdown on the opposition, for instance launching multiple criminal cases against anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny. It has also charged more than two dozen activists with “mass disorder” for the violence that broke out on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012 as Putin returned to the Kremlin.

"Forbes Russia" provided another theory for Surkov's departure. On May 9, it quoted sources in the government alleging that Volodin and Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov were behind the investigation into Skolkovo, Medvedev’s personal innovation project. On April 18, a criminal investigation was launched after a Skolkovo official was alleged to have paid opposition parliamentarian Ilya Ponomaryov, who has attended anti-Putin protests, $750,000 for lectures. The sources told "Forbes" that Surkov’s removal was the “latest episode” in the saga.

'End Of An Era'

Whatever the case, Surkov's demise is likely to intensify speculation that more ministers could be fired and that Medvedev himself could be sacked.

Gleb Cherkasov, editor in chief of the influential "Kommersant" daily, says Surkov’s resignation from the Medvedev cabinet at the very least lands a major blow to the prime minister.

“Surkov the person was a brand. He was himself a brand and he strengthened any job that he took on," Cherkasov said. "It follows that his departure from the Medvedev government is a very serious blow to the weight of personnel. In the end, there are not many people in the country who have political and economic experience. There is a lot less remaining in Medvedev's government than there was before this [episode].”

Once touted the third-most influential man in Russia, Surkov gained notoriety as the architect of Russia’s “sovereign” or “managed” version of democracy -- a term that critics say describes a system of rule with only the trappings of democratic political process.

An advertising whiz kid who trained as a theater director, the 48-year-old Surkov was credited with micromanaging Russian politics in his post of first deputy chief of staff in charge of domestic politics.

He was famously dubbed the Kremlin’s “puppet master” by tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who on May 8 called Surkov's departure the “end of an era.”

"Surkov’s sacking has brought an end to the era of 'managed democracy.'" Prokhorov wrote on his blog on May 8: “Whether you liked that era or not, Vladislav Surkov was clearly its starkest representative.”

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Natalya Dzhanpoladova contributed reporting from Moscow