Vladimir Kara-Murza, 3 January 2012
For more than twelve years, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, was seen both as the architect and the symbol of Russia’s return to authoritarianism. Considered an éminence grise and the chief ideologist of the regime, Surkov was a quiet but decisive presence in all major decisions taken by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in the summer of 1999, from the takeover of independent television to the abolition of gubernatorial elections. On Putin’s behalf, Surkov—the author of the term “sovereign democracy”—fine-tuned election results, manipulated Parliament, and dissolved unwanted political parties. Once a bodyguard and a PR manager for oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Surkov had no qualms about serving a regime that put his former boss in prison. He always “takes the shape of the container,” recalls opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. “He has a system [of views] which always corresponds to the views of his superiors.”
As the Kremlin’s domestic enforcer, Surkov oversaw both political arms of the regime: the United Russia party and the Nashi youth movement. Sometimes, his protégés would blur the line between the shabby and the criminal, as when Nashi harassed independent journalists and foreign diplomats. The main purpose behind Nashi’s creation in early 2005—just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine—was to prevent similar events in Russia. For the past seven years, the Kremlin’s nightmare scenario was a mass peaceful protest against authoritarian rule. Just over a year ago, in December 2010, Surkov instructed Nashi activists to “train their muscles” ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections.
This time, the great manipulator has failed: the country’s mood has changed too much. Despite his best efforts, even the official results of the December 4th parliamentary election did not give United Russia a popular majority, while the blatant rigging of the poll—just as the regime had feared—brought out tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Moscow in protest. The Kremlin’s attempt to stage a counter-rally became a laughing stock: some 5,000 participants who were bused to central Moscow to show their support for Putin included migrant laborers from Central Asia, who, in all likelihood, do not even possess Russian citizenship.
In a hasty attempt to quell the protests, the Kremlin offered political concessions in the form of restored gubernatorial elections and simplified party registration rules, reversing some of the key decisions engineered by Surkov. The architect himself soon followed. On December 27, Vladislav Surkov was relieved of his duties as Kremlin deputy chief of staff and moved to the largely decorative post of “deputy prime minister for innovation,” As Surkov has confirmed, he will have no role in domestic policy decisions. “I am too odious for this brave new world,” he observed, referring to the changed political situation in Russia.
Some say Vladislav Surkov was dismissed because he failed his superiors at the critical moment. Others call him a “sacrificial lamb” and view his removal as a symbolic gesture to the opposition. Surkov himself maintains that he asked to be relieved of his post. Maybe he is telling the truth. Maybe he is just abandoning a sinking ship.
The System Without Its Architect: The Kremlin Fires Surkov