Instead of a requiem*

Many articles, opinion pieces, alas, even political obituaries have been published in the past couple of days on Vladislav Surkov, the former ‘grey cardinal’ of Russian politics who was swiftly dismissed after a public spat with the Investigative Committee over corruption at the Skolkovo Foundation, one of the flagship projects of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Wait a minute… could it be that I have already read similar articles about Surkov, not very long ago? Indeed: in December 2011, when Surkov, after failing to engineer the Duma elections smoothly enough was demoted to the government from his former position of deputy head of the Presidential Administration, many predicted a short but terminal agony (I did not exclude the possibility either). Nevertheless, what is startlingly similar in these two cases is that the grey cardinal of the Kremlin, the architect of the ‘sovereign democracy’, seemed to lose out on two equally banal and rookie mistakes. Did he really not see the 2011 protests coming? Did he really think that he can get away with a public attack on Putin’s ‘personal police’? What game is Surkov playing, actually? 

Surkov was dismissed on Wednesday, following a personal chat with Vladimir Putin. Officially, of his own will. Officially, based on a letter he himself wrote on 26 April. Officially, on the recommendation of Dmitry Medvedev. Officially, because of the failure of the government to implement Vladimir Putin’s presidential decrees from one year before. Of course, no one believed any of these. It was quite obvious from the beginning that the Vice-Prime Minister was sacked in connection with the statements he made in London about the newest target of the Investigative Committee, a body led by hard-core silovik Alexander Bastrykin: the Skolkovo Foundation and the dispute that ensued.

Collateral casualty or jumper?

Therefore, many commentators argued, Surkov’s dismissal was part of the increasingly hectic feud between the ‘conservatives’ and the ‘technocrats-liberals’ of the Russian political elite. We have also seen that the process eventually leading to Surkov’s fall in fact started much earlier, in 2011. It is also worth noting that his fall fits very well into at least two other conflicts. One is about the waning political influence of United Russia and the parallel emergence of the All-Russian People’s Front, a project run by Surkov’s rival and successor, Vyacheslav Volodin. The other is, very unsurprisingly, about energy resources. First, Surkov’s departure may speed up the fall, or at least a radical reshuffle of the government that may include another liberal technocrat, Arkady Dvorkovich falling out of favour. Dvorkovich has for more than a year been in an increasing struggle with Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, who seems to be winning at a very important frontline: he might get appointed to head the electricity giant Inter RAO. Sechin has also been entangled in a conflict over Chechnya’s state-owned oil firm with Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the autonomous republic. The long-standing issue has recently been brought up by Russian media again. Not so accidentally, Kadyrov is known to be the protégé of Surkov, who has Chechen roots.  It certainly would not come as much of a surprise if Sechin could soon claim this trophy as well.

Still, even if we accept that the zeitgeist had inevitably something to do with Surkov’s departure, the question of the hows and the whys do remain. The conflict between Surkov and the Investigative committee, after all, was an unusually harsh and quick exchange of ripostes. Surely, the man who was one of the architects of the system must have known the boundaries of passable public accusations. Similarly, in 2011, how could Surkov not see the protests if the experts of the Centre of Strategic Research had drawn attention to this possibility much before? Could it be that Surkov saw everything but chose not to do anything about it?

In fact, this latter hypothesis is indeed plausible. In 2011, I quoted an article by Alexander Kazakov on the Vzglyad news portal. Kazakov called Surkov an ‘enterprising’ kind of political operator, who was able to take his own initiatives and to set out new goals for the institution he was supervising instead of only carrying out the instructions of his boss. I then added that in my view, Surkov was uncomfortable not with the system he had to work in but rather with the system he saw coming – one that would take no initiatives other than Putin’s.

Far from claiming that Surkov was or is an almighty puppet master, he has indeed been an enterprising operator. Many often forget that Surkov was supposedly one of the main driving forces behind the idea that Medvedev should stay on for another presidential term. He certainly saw large opportunities in a gradually liberalised political system and, together with his business background, people like Viktor Vekselberg, the billionaire chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, in a freer and more innovative economy. To Putin, the Medvedev presidency was a tool of political strategy, which may or may not be needed in the future. To Surkov and his circles, Skolkovo, the planned (and later torpedoed) privatisation and the gradual political opening were all about hard money. Medvedev was about hard money.  After losing out twice in September 2011, first on the planned liberal party of Mikhail Prokhorov, and later on Medvedev himself, what incentive did Surkov have to support the system? As a matter of fact, in the light of the above, would it be really too far-fetched to suspect that Surkov did ultimately finance opposition leaders like Ilya Ponomarev through the Skolkovo Foundation, as his opponents claim, to help building a counterweight to a system that was about to bury him?

Similarly: if he chose to bow out now and like this, it has to mean that he saw no opportunities to defend the last remaining flagship project of the Medvedev presidency as part of the government.

Hard choices ahead

What could be the next step for the government? Are large-scale reshuffles ahead that would see heavyweight presidential advisers returning to the government as Vice-Prime Ministers, as many predicted? Well, one of these, Elvira Nabiullina, will head the Central Bank from June on, and another Putin confidential, Tatiana Golikova is rumoured to be in for the Audit Chamber. It would be just natural to schedule the big reshuffle for the same time.

And then, the big question pops up again: what happens to Dmitry Medvedev? Surely, Putin has sent conflicting signals about this: in his five-hour live talk show, he seemed to defend Medvedev (“the government has been in office for less than one year”), but later on, he scolded the government for underperformance. Letting Surkov alone take the blame alone for this would be an utter waste for the Presidential Administration.

As I blogged before, I think that the key to Medvedev’s survival as Prime Minister – considering his appalling personal approval rating – is unquestionable loyalty to Putin. If he accepts to be a ‘technical’ Prime Minister, he stands a pretty good chance staying on as head of the government, as Putin is certainly unwilling to appoint someone who could be his potential successor as president. If Medvedev chooses this opportunity, his and Surkov’s ways will part and he will, at least in the short term, have to accept the erosion of his work.

There is, however, another way to go, both for him and Surkov: the platform of the regime’s inner critics. Although the role of Alexei Kudrin in Russia’s politics is still a riddle waiting to be solved, the critical edge of his public appearances and his aversion to the ‘conservatives’ is undeniable.  Even if Kudrin cannot exactly be called a friend of Medvedev, he, the Prime Minister and Surkov certainly had converging opinions on the economic and political trajectory of the country in 2011, before the castling. Oddly enough, they all are or once were close allies of Putin.

After creating the ‘systemic opposition’, Surkov’s next main trick might be to create the similarly sounding but very different notion of ‘opposition within the system’. Time will tell if he, or later, Medvedev  (and the business behind them) will find this a good investment. But just as I think that in 2011, Surkov knowingly jumped the ship of the Presidential Administration to be in the government where he thought to have a bigger breathing space for his ‘enterprising’ ideas, he now seems to have decided to move his headquarters again.

If the target really is the ‘opposition within the system’, he has two examples ahead: a negative and a positive one. Both are pretty ironic. Representatives of a failed presidency with dismantled reforms could end up like Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin: loathed, humiliated and sidelined – this is exactly what Surkov built Putin’s system upon. On the other hand, former high-ranking officials that have grown displeased with the system and gone to opposition were also the basis of the colour revolutions – the bogeymen of the sovereign democracy designed by Surkov himself.

Many things might depend on whether Surkov is an obsolete figure buried by a system he helped to create or an extremely flexible and enterprising strategist.

*the title is a deliberate play on the lyrical cycle of Anna Akhmatova entitled ‘Requiem’ starting with the poem ‘Instead of a Preface’

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