Formally, Vladislav Surkov's departure as deputy Kremlin chief of staff to become deputy prime minister is a lateral move. In reality, it marks the end of an era.
This is because in addition to leaving the Kremlin for the White House, Surkov is also changing his brief -- from the regime's ideologist in charge of the political system to the official overseeing modernization.
Surkov was the architect of Vladimir Putin's "power vertical." He was stage director of Russia's simulated and tightly controlled multiparty system. He coined the term "sovereign democracy" and put it into practice.
And now he's moving on. "Stabilization devours its children," he said wryly in remarks to Interfax. “I am too odious for this brave new world.”
Before I get into what I think this all means, some credit where credit is due.
While I was preparing a post
last week on Surkov's interview with "Izvestia
" -- in which he said those protesting against the government deserve respect and that the authorities should "respond benevolently" to them -- I became engaged in a brief and collegial debate on Twitter with the ever-astute Kevin Rothrock over at A Good Treaty
Kevin saw signs that Surkov was on his way out. I disagreed. Just for the record, he was right and I was wrong. I didn't see this coming and dismissed the chatter in the Russian press
suggesting that it was imminent. I have always considered Surkov central to the Putin system and couldn't imagine anybody else as its choreographer.
Now that choreographer will be Vyacheslav Volodin, a longtime Putin loyalist (who was chief of staff of his government) who will take over Surkov's formal title at the Kremlin as well as his political portfolio.
So what does it all mean?
In remarks to "Kommersant-FM
," former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin suggested it was a step in the direction of reform -- a “serious bid to renew the political system” that both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to:
This means that political reform is continuing and we are seeing a new and very important aspect of it. Surkov has been in the Kremlin for a very long time and was the man who directed all of the Kremlin's political technologies. I consider him one of the designers of the system. Now the system is being reconsidered. Other organizers are needed, with other views on the political system.
Kudrin's benevolent view, as informed as it is, is not universally shared.
Despite the fact that Surkov is reviled by many in the protest movement as the architect of fixed elections and a simulated democracy, he has been making conciliatory noises since the December 4 elections.
He has urged dialogue with the demonstrators and sought ways to channel the urban middle class discontent into the political system. Prior to the elections, he had been pushing for an expansion of the managed pluralism in the State Duma by bringing in more parties.
But as "Nezavisimaya gazeta
" reported today, he was badly outmaneuvered by Volodin, who emerged as his bitter rival in the elite and who orchestrated the creation of Putin's National Front:
Remember that in the summer Volodin essentially challenged Surkov when he initiated the creation of the All-Russian Popular Front for Vladimir Putin. There were a lot of questions about the Popular Front. But now, after the December elections made it clear that United Russia has lost its popularity in society, the Popular Front is the only real political technology and political base for Putin's presidential campaign.
Citing unidentified officials, Gazeta.ru
reported today that Surkov's replacement by Volodin means that the Kremlin is planning to play hardball with the protest movement.
Likewise, speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted that while Surkov prefers to utilize subterfuge, diversion, and intrigue as political tools, Volodin's methods are more direct.
"Volodin just runs over anyone between him and his goal," he said. "The authorities are moving away from Surkov's methods of organizing elections. Now, whoever is opposed to them will get smacked in the head. This is a clear sign that the authorities are moving toward more stringent methods."
We'll have to wait and see whether Kudrin's optimistic assessment or Oreshkin's darker scenario will prove correct. But Russia is showing no signs of quieting down for the traditional holiday break.
-- Brian Whitmore