Changing horses

Vladislav Surkov’s departure from the Kremlin has shocked many. After all, the grey cardinal has occupied the post of deputy chief of staff in charge for political engineering practically for ever (1999, to be exact). However, there had been some signs of his imminent departure (Kevin Rothrock spotted some), and while it undoubtedly signals the end of an era (just like Aleksey Kudrin’s resignation did), it does not necessarily mean the end of Surkov’s importance in Russia’s political system. Positions change, roles do so more rarely, and I don’t think that the influence of the grey cardinal will undoubtedly fade with this demotion. His future path will depend on the political constellation after the reshuffle (including Putin’s return) has been fully finished. 

It seems obvious that the purpose of the reshuffle in the presidential administration was to create a comfortable working environment for Vladimir Putin. Two of his closest confidents, Sergey Ivanov and Vyacheslav Volodin have been appointed to the most senior positions, and the appointment of Volodin, the chief architect of the All-Russia Popular Front also gives a signal that Putin will try to distance himself from United Russia and will try to build on his own popularity, or, to put it a bit more accurately, his uniqueness. This is no surprise. Days ago, I’ve already blogged about the necessity for Putin to keep away from the governing party as much as possible. Furthermore, it is just natural that Putin does not need the same cabinet as Medvedev had.
Obviously, Surkov had a different role in Medvedev’s cabinet than before. It is yet unclear whether he was charged with supervising Medvedev, supervising Naryshkin, or whether he started formulating a separate grouping of officials known as the “civiliki”, after Stratfor’s 2009 analysis. Either of these is true, I believe Surkov’s not needed any more in the presidential cabinet: Naryshkin’s gone, Medvedev will not be around for long, and Putin certainly doesn’t want anyone too independent close to him.  I certainly don’t think that Surkov had to leave because his opinion about the protests differred from the official opinion of the government, as Vedomosti suggests it. If Aleksey Kudrin had Putin’s leave to deliver a speech to protesters (as he certainly did), Surkov’s much softer stance cannot stand out that much from the government’s strategy either.
Furthermore, even if Surkov built up an inner resistance towards the siloviki – let them be called civiliki or anything else – they surely did not become independent of Putin. The aforementioned Stratfor paper mentioned the military intelligence as a potential power base of this new elite, but in the recent years the GRU has been gradually subordinated to the defense ministry (it is worth mentioning that the leader of the agency, Alexander Shlyakhturov had been demoted days before Surkov was replaced). Meanwhile, civilian intelligentsia in the government started to connect much more to Aleksey Kudrin, a close alley of Putin instead. Even the statements of Surkov and Kudrin about the need of a new liberal party are congruent. I suspect them pretty much to be on the same page.
True, part of the reasons of Surkov’s replacement are explained by an insightful piece by Alexander Kazakov in Vzglyad. Kazakov argues that the ways of Surkov have just been too independent for United Russia. He says:
“Of course, I understand that through these years, Surkov has been the executor of Putin’s political will, but there are different kinds of executors. There are ones who operate within strictly defined lines, and there are enterprising ones who set out new objectives for the government and new ways to achieve them.”
I fully agree that Surkov is the “enterprising” kind of politician, but I think it’s mostly not the present structure he has been unable to work with, but the oncoming one. With the appointments of Ivanov and Volodin, Putin made a very strong signal that he intends to have a cabinet which won’t take any initatives other than his. The chief reason why Putin decided to return to the presidency is that he wanted a position where he cannot be circumvented. Obviously, he intends to set up a stable background for this. A monolithic background that Surkov, distrusted by the siloviki, could not work in.
Also, it seems obvious that substantial changes to the framework of sovereign democracy are needed. However, the workshop for this will be the government and not the presidency. Surkov is, above all, a spin doctor, a tool to create counterweights and instruments for the sake of maintaining equilibrium and stability. Putin knows all very well that he must make concessions to the opposition. He also wants to keep these changes as gradual as possible, but changes will nonetheless occur, and this will create instability. I think he will try to keep this instability in the government and will act as a vigilant supervisor of the reforms. This is why he needs an enterprising mind in the government to aid the new Prime Minister, whether he’s called Medvedev or Kudrin (as I blogged before, I suspect Medvedev to be around only for a short while, and to be replaced by Kudrin afterwards).
Therefore, I don’t think the appointment of the said two siloviki is an alarm that Putin will try to “play hard” on protesters or that he’s going to try to return to the power structure of his first two presidential terms. It’s just a hint about the new mechanism of the power machinery. There will be room for changes and instability, only elsewhere in the power vertical. Of course, if what Gazeta.ru wrote yesterday is true, and Putin will try to fix the presidential election in order to win in the first round, this whole strategy will crumble. I agree with Gleb Pavlovsky, who said that a clear election and a second-round victory would be more convincing and legitimate. And as I’ve blogged, Putin still has enough potential to do that. Or, more accurately, he still lacks a convincing alternative.
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