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Surkov’s Last Stand

Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
It’s more than fitting that the circumstances surrounding Vladislav Surkov’s sudden exit from the halls of power continue to be shrouded in mystery a week after the fact.

The master of political subterfuge, the architect of the make-believe democracy, the creator of faux parties and imitation social movements, of course, would have it no other way.

A week after Surkov’s departure as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was announced, we still don’t even know for sure when exactly he actually tendered his resignation, which was officially announced on May 8.

The Kremlin’s preferred narrative: Surkov resigned on May 7, right after President Vladimir Putin publicly dressed down the government for its poor performance. That is what Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

But Surkov is telling another story. He insists that he tendered his resignation on April 26 of his own accord, but the Kremlin waited nearly two weeks to announce it.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was typically wishy-washy on this point. His press secretary said Surkov discussed his resignation with the premier on both April 26 and May 7.

Does this really matter? Actually, probably not. But it is quite telling. The man who for over a decade masterminded Russia’s political narrative on the Kremlin’s behalf is not allowing his old masters to write the script of his banishment.

The authorities couldn’t even get their story straight about who would replace him.

The government first announced that Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich would be Surkov’s replacement. They then walked this back. Dvorkovich would just temporarily handle Surkov’s ministerial duties. His job as government chief of staff would be shared by two of his deputies: Aleksandra Levistskaya and Sergei Prikhodko.

There was just one problem with this: Levistskaya, it seems, resigned back in April. Oops. Finally, days later, the government announced that Prikhodko would temporarily serve as acting chief of staff alone.

"It’s quite apparent...that the deputy prime minister’s departure was unexpected and that the Kremlin and the government do not have a candidate for the vacancy," the daily "Kommersant" wrote.

The reasons for his departure also remain murky.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov told journalists that it was related to the government’s failure to implement Putin’s decrees, which was Surkov’s responsibility -- but few are buying that explanation.

Most media focused on the fact that Surkov fell out of favor with Putin back in 2011 when he supported keeping Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin for a second term as president.

Speculation also zeroed in on a very public conflict he had with the powerful Investigative Committee, which is examining alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and technological center, a flagship Medvedev project that Surkov supervises.

The probe alleges that Skolkovo’s Senior Vice President Aleksei Beltyukov illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. Press reports from Kremlin-friendly outfits suggested that this illustrated Surkov’s ties with the opposition.

In a speech at the London School of Economics on May 2, Surkov criticized the investigation, sparking a harsh response from Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin. In an article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Markin ridiculed Surkov’s "pitiful moaning from London," adding that it "would not stop the Investigative Committee from doing its job."

And some accounts simply suggested that, after masterminding high Kremlin intrigue for so long, Surkov was just bored with the mundane work of day-to-day governance.

Surkov himself was typically cryptic about what is really going on. "I’ll tell you about it later, when it is appropriate," he told "Kommersant."

So is Surkov playing some deeper game here? Mikhail Rostovsky, chief political analyst for the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," thinks so.

"Russia’s former chief puppet master has refused to play the role of the loser in Putin’s puppet theater," Rostovsky wrote this week.

"I venture to suggest that the government chief of staff’s departure was not part of Putin’s plans," Rostovsky continued. "Why? Because in the political drama that Putin is now playing out, each person has been assigned his own role. The president’s own role was to constantly kick the government and exclaim: 'You losers! You are failing to execute my edicts!'"

And the role of the government and its chief of staff "was to make feeble attempts to justify itself and to promise to mend its ways."

Using the government as a lightning rod allowed Putin to deflect criticism for any crisis that may arise -- like the economic downturn many are predicting -- and to reinforce his image as the strong national leader.

"Surkov has, to a degree, wrecked Putin’s game," Rostovsky wrote. "Putin can, of course, continue to use Medvedev’s Cabinet as a whipping boy. But it seems that Surkov’s departure has weakened the government to such an extent that it will now be difficult to treat it without a pitying smile...Putin has discredited the government so successfully that Medvedev no longer has the strength to bear the burden of responsibility. And that burden now falls on the president’s shoulders."

I think Rostovsky is on the mark here. Surkov, it appears, has torn off the mask. The master of make-believe politics is, to a degree, putting an end to the era of make believe.

Which completes a circle that began with the resignation of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin back in the fall of 2011, shortly after the infamous Putin-Medvedev "castling" was announced at the United Russia party congress.

That, of course, was also not in Putin’s plans -- and it was a harbinger of future turbulence in the ruling elite.

As I have blogged in the past, Surkov and Kudrin are "managers" who owe their positions in the elite to specific skill sets -- as opposed to "shareholders" like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who have a very tangible stake in the status quo.

The managers sensed that Russian society was changing and that the political system needed to open up to some extent to accommodate that change -- which made them potential allies of the opposition.

They lost that argument and now the heavyweights among them appear to be defecting. Which raises the question of whether the ongoing Cold War in the Kremlin is about to get a little hotter.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the May 17 edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I discuss the fallout from Surkov's exit with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin or RFE/RL's Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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


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