The Russian media have already said goodbye to Vladislav Surkov and talked about the end of his era once. This was in December 2011, as mass protest rallies heated up in the country. Recently, Surkov left the government again, but this time, he left for nowhere. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the fate and prospects of the once all-powerful éminence grise.
Vladislav Surkov’s dismissal came as a surprise for experts, especially considering that it took place during the May holidays. The official report of the government to the president—one of the most important political events in the country—was held in the Kremlin while half of the nation was vacationing in the countryside. The next day, May 8, Putin signed a decree relieving Vladislav Surkov of his posts of deputy prime minister for innovations and government chief-of-staff responsible for overseeing the implementation of Putin’s electoral decrees. According to the president’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, Surkov was fired for poor work, although officially he gave up his post on his own initiative.
Many different versions of his dismissal have appeared in the media. Putin had three clear motives for his executive decision, but even taken together, none of them seem to have played the decisive role. To uncover the primary reason for Surkov’s dismissal, one should look to Dmitri Medvedev’s four-year presidency.
The former head of both the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement and of the Russian Federal Youth Agency, Vasiliy Yakemenko, one of the most notorious figures in the former deputy prime minister’s entourage, brilliantly described what happened to Surkov: “The internal contact of the government with Surkov was broken off when he refused to abandon one of his positions.” The key incident happened in spring 2011, when Surkov evaded Putin’s question about his attitude toward the All-Russian People’s Front (ARPF), founded by Vyacheslav Volodin, then government chief-of-staff and Surkov’s opponent. Six months later, Volodin replaced Surkov in the Kremlin, and the ARPF became the main pro-Putin electoral force.
Naively believing that Putin would allow Medvedev to stay for a second term, Surkov backed the wrong horse.
However, these were all consequences of mistakes that Surkov had made in 2008 and 2009. At the time, he had to decide whom he would support as the next president. Naively believing that Putin would allow Medvedev to stay for a second term, Surkov backed the wrong horse. This choice, which predetermined Surkov’s close psychological relationship with Medvedev and the resulting distrust between him and Putin, is the real reason for Surkov’s dismissals in both 2011 and 2013. The period between the two dismissals was characterized by a gradual process of pushing the former éminence grise out of the system of state decision-making.
Did Surkov have a chance to stay in the government? From Putin’s perspective, he likely did—but missed it. Surkov was offered an opportunity to prove himself in other areas: some of them more routine, such as innovations, and others politically suicidal, such as the supervision of the implementation of presidential decrees. Chances were slim that an ambitious person who viewed himself as Russia’s ideologist-in-chief would be content with such a position for a long time. Thus, the real question was not when Putin would fire Surkov, but when Surkov’s own nerves would snap.
We can, in fact, name three motives that pushed Surkov toward resignation.
The first was the negative dynamic of the relationship between the government and the Kremlin. The cabinet was dreading delivering its report to the president on the results of its first year of work. It was clear that Putin was not happy with the way his electoral decrees were being implemented. However, the failure to properly carry out the president’s orders was just one of the many issues that troubled relations between the cabinet and the Kremlin. Despite his experience and political authority, Surkov felt uncomfortable as the government chief-of-staff. According to anonymous Kremlin sources, Surkov was accused of not being able to find a common language with top government staffers, many of whom were responsible for the implementation of Putin’s decrees. Resignations from the government staff included Director of the Department for Information Technologies Alexei Popov, who supervised the “e-government” project; Deputy Chief-of-Staff Vasily Kopylov, who was responsible for preparing cabinet meetings; and Deputy Chief-of-Staff Anna Popova, who supervised legislative work. Likewise, Surkov’s first deputy, Alexandra Levitskaya, went on a long vacation with the intent of resigning, but it seems possible that she will now change her plans following her boss’s resignation. According to Surkov’s colleagues, his relations with other deputy prime ministers—including, most likely, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (whose protégée, notably, is Levitskaya)—were complicated as well.
It is also important to mention the psychological factors involved in Surkov’s departure. “The work in the cabinet secretariat is strictly bureaucratic, and he [Surkov] is more of a strategist,” an unnamed official told Vedomosti newspaper. “It was clear that bureaucratic functions were a burden on him; the presidential administration offers more opportunities for creative work.” At the same time, the Kremlin found Surkov’s behavior impertinent. His high-handed attitude and his readiness to show initiative were not appreciated. For example, the presidential administration was outraged by Surkov’s attempt to push through a bill on tax benefits for the Skolkovo Foundation, which was vetoed by Putin.
The Skolkovo project was the second motive for Surkov’s resignation. This project was Medvedev’s idea, and Putin never liked it. As a follower of the “conservative Soviet” view regarding the development of the fundamental sciences, Putin thought that supporting the Soviet system of naukograds (a contraction of the Russian terms for “science” and “city”) and akademgorodoks (a contraction of the Russian terms for “academic” and “town”) was a sufficient approach to promoting innovation. However, Putin did not prevent the project from developing until clouds started to gather around Medvedev. The point was not whether the idea of promoting innovation by establishing a “Skolkovo Innograd” (a contraction of the Russian terms for “innovation” and “city”) was a good or bad one, but that Medvedev’s critical weakening deprived the project of almost all its political support. The rest was just the aftereffects of this process. The reason why Surkov, as the curator of the Skolkovo project, became the target for the security services’ attack was not that the project could be corrupt (the Russian security services would not find that surprising), but that this corruption could concern Medvedev’s people.
The publication of an extremely rude article in Izvestia newspaper by Vladimir Markin, the press secretary of the Investigative Committee of Russia (ICR), did not come as a surprise either. In his article, Markin called Skolkovo a “zone” (which in Russian connotes a criminal division in an institution of confinement), threatened Surkov with dismissal, and accused him of trying to pose as a victim of political persecution. Markin penned this article in reaction to a lecture delivered by Surkov at the London School of Economics, in which the then-deputy prime minister reproached the Investigative Committee with being excessively zealous and called Skolkovo the cleanest Russian project in terms of corruption. “These days it’s fashionable to be a political prisoner; you can count on the attention of the BBC and the support of Amnesty International right away. This is possibly the reason why curators of [Skolkovo’s] especially effective managers like to address the London target audience with an aria of a visitor from Moscow. This moan they call a song,” General Markin wrote.
In order to understand the situation, it is important to know the peculiarities of informal influence. Here, for instance, Markin, who is just a press secretary of the Investigative Committee with reputation problems of his own (one need only recall the suspicions that his diploma in legal studies was forged), publicly humiliated a key member of the Russian government. In reality, Markin is one of the closest colleagues and an authorized representative of ICR Chairman Alexander Bastrykin. The ICR carries out the function of suppressing the regime’s critics. In this system, Surkov was a vulnerable figure outside the regime’s inner circle.
Surkov’s departure has only increased the appetites of those who are lobbying for the government’s dismissal. A revealing incident took place on May 21, when security guards at the Bocharov Ruchei presidential residence stopped Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich who was going in for a meeting with Putin and Mevdedev. By strange coincidence, journalists from Lifenews, the prime minister’s “favorite” news website, happened to be at the security gate and filmed the moment when Natalia Timakova, Medvedev’s press secretary, and Marina Yentaltseva, his chief of protocol, telephoned “Dima” (short for Dmitri) to complain. Businessman Alexander Morozov, who knows that area well, wrote that the incident looks very much like a provocation staged by the Federal Protective Service. The attack on Dmitri Medvedev’s team is clearly intensifying.
Surkov’s departure has only increased the appetites of those who are lobbying for the government’s dismissal.
Finally, the third and last motive of Surkov’s dismissal is that he was suspected of supporting the Bolotnaya Square opposition movement. This conjecture is based on speculation. A part of Putin’s close circle considered the fact that Surkov (at least indirectly) financed the opposition (the Skolkovo Foundation paid $750,000 to State Duma member and prominent opposition leader Ilya Ponomarev) as a reason for accepting his resignation. Surkov’s circle saw this “support” as a necessary step in accepting Russia’s new political reality: “The best part of our society,” as Surkov referred to the participants of the December 2011 opposition rallies, “is demanding respect for itself.” This statement can be treated both as a dangerous flouting of the “general line” and as a sound view of the national situation. According to Yakemenko, “all people capable of doubts were eliminated from the system.” Furthermore, Nashi’s former leader observed, “doubting people disturb and compromise the system because they ‘want development.’ Political stability requires the removal of Surkov.” Surkov did not threaten this stability in any way, but he annoyed those responsible for preserving it. His lecture in London could not but provoke a negative response from Vyacheslav Volodin, his successor in the presidential administration: when talking about the stability of the current political system in Russia, the deputy prime minister stressed that the rallies in Bolotnaya Square had not broken the system and that the “system defeated the opposition. It’s a fact.”
“In ten years, from a destitute, disintegrating, humiliated country, Russia turned into a sovereign state. This project was too good to be true. It reminded everyone too boldly of its real author,” Yakemenko commented on the words of his former boss, hinting at Volodin’s role in Surkov’s dismissal. In other words, Surkov tried to show that today’s stability was his own achievement. Volodin considered his predecessor a personal threat. This undoubtedly influenced the move toward Surkov’s dismissal.
Nobody knows yet what Surkov will do now. The media have discussed the possibility of his heading the Skolkovo project, but on May 15 it became known that Putin’s assistant Andrei Fursenko will become the project’s curator. What is more important is that, having won the first big battle, the supporters of Medvedev’s resignation will now double their efforts.