A Long Time Coming?

May 15, 2013
Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin [Photo: Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant]

Vladislav Surkov’s dismissal from the post of vice premier and head of the government bureaucracy was the main political event of the past week. In this article, The New Times explores who or what forced the once-powerful Kremlin political guru to finish his nearly 14-year career in the highest bodies of the government.

“Surkov felt himself to be absolutely out of place and spoke in a manner not typical for him. He is a man with an unusual mind— educated, very creative, who as a rule speaks vividly, passionately, impressively, and here he spoke hesitantly, justifying himself and looking rather pathetic. I think he didn’t want to feel like a humiliated little bureaucrat who was being reprimanded and scolded.” This was sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya’s impression of Vladislav Surkov, Vice Premier and head of the government staff, at a meeting at the Kremlin on the 7th of May, during which the fulfillment of Putin’s inauguration decrees, signed a year earlier, was discussed. Vladimir Putin harshly criticized the work of the government, and Surkov was the only person who tried to challenge him.

Less than a day later, on the morning of 8 May, the President signed a decree relieving Surkov of his duties “at his own request.” Only commentators close to the government believed the official explanation for this unexpected resignation provided by Dmitry Peskov, the Presidential Press Secretary, that “this is related to the topic of the implementation of the president’s decrees.”

“I completely share the official assessment: the reason for the resignation is the quality and volume of fulfillment of the president’s decrees,” Dmitry Orlov, General Director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications and member of the Supreme Council of United Russia told The New Times. “Only 73% of the assignments were fulfilled, according to the claims of the government itself, but it was clear that the real fulfillment was much less.”

Other experts set about zealously competing with each other to construct their own hypotheses – from the banal and criminal to the exalted and philosophical. The former vice premier himself remained silent, promising to speak of his motives later, “when it will be appropriate.” But already it is obvious that we cannot speak of any one reason: the confluence of a number of factors influenced Surkov’s decision.

What–or Who–Was Responsible

The story that Surkov’s resignation was related to problems in the Skolkovo Fund , which was under his oversight, seems self-evident – if nothing more than for the simple reason that the Vice Premier was fired on the day after the sensational article was published in Izvestia by Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin. Markin freely denounced Surkov for his speech on the 1st of May at the London School of Economics, in which Surkov criticized the overzealousness of investigators in the “Skolkovo Affair.” Many observers figured Markin’s boldness meant that compromising materials already lay on Putin’s desk.

Surkov himself said (and the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Natalya Timakova confirmed) that he had written his letter of resignation back on 26 April. But a full-fledged replacement at the White House was not readied in advance for some reason: at first it was announced that Surkov’s duties as Vice Premier would be transferred to Arkady Dvorkovich, and then Surkov’s first deputy, Sergei Prikhodko, was appointed acting head of the government staff. Sources in the White House told The New Times that they refused to see Prikhodko as a real candidate for this very important post in the power structure.

This fact likely confirms that the decision to dismiss Surkov was made by Putin rather spontaneously and in violation of the established procedure. In fact, according to Art. 83 of the Russian Constitution and Art. 9 of the Law on the Government, the president must dismiss vice premiers from their positions “[…] at the suggestion of the chair of the government of the Russian Federation.” However, an informed source in the government told The New Times that Surkov sent his statement directly to Putin, and only “spoke two times” with Medvedev. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov confirmed to The New Times that “formally it is necessary for the prime minister to approve the resignation statement or the decree of dismissal.” But in this case it seems as if this was done after the fact.

There is, in fact, a version of the story that explains these discrepancies. According to The New Times’ government source, the statement was apparently signed on 26 April (incidentally, not the first such statement from Surkov requesting to be released, as has been said). Yet Surkov wasn’t freed before Markin’s article, but afterwards –“Surkov’s nerves simply gave out.” Although some experts think this explanation isn’t convincing: “Surkov is a quick-tempered and vindictive person, he could in fact experience negative emotions,” claims Dmitry Orlov. “But he would display them only when a sober calculation prompted him to do this, he had taken some kind of serious decision in advance. I think that when he spoke in London – in a candid and aggressive style not peculiar to the Russian elite – he knew that he would be leaving.”

Experts are divided about the rumors that Surkov personally authorized the payment of $750,000 to the State Duma opposition deputy Ilya Ponomarev (a criminal case has been opened against Alexey Beltyukov, Vice President of the Skolkovo Fund, regarding this expenditure), and even possibly financed other prominent opposition members, namely Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov. Sociologist Kryshtanovskaya confirms the connection between Ponomarev and Surkov – “They went on a trip to America together” on Skolkovo business. Igor Bunin, the General Director of the Center for Political Strategies, on the contrary believes that the information about Surkov’s involvement in Ponomarev’s honorarium is “untrue”.

But Dmitry Orlov recalls that Surkov had long sympathized with the protest movement.  “There is a lot of evidence that Surkov tried to establish a system of relations with the protest movement. But no one will likely be able to prove that he took part in financing protest actions and Ponomarev personally – Surkov is a very seasoned player,” says Orlov. “But the fact that he sympathized with the protest movement and was disposed toward it – that was obvious,” he added. If we recall that it was Surkov, while he was in the presidential administration, who created and gave complete carte-blanche to the pro-Kremlin movement Nashi and Rumol, honed in battle with the democratic opposition, then the theory that Surkov was helping the protest movement seems completely incredible.

Split in the Elite

The story that sounds much more likely is that Surkov is only the first victim in a struggle of two government clans. Visible manifestations of this clash are the “Skolkovo Affair” and Markin’s article, which goes beyond the bounds of all bureaucratic decency. It was characterized by observers as extremely provocative in form – a press secretary, even if from the main power ministry of Russia, took a swipe at the Vice Premier – something that in the conditions of the government’s vertikal was completely incredible! Then there was the substance – no wonder sources in the government characterized Markin’s article as a “political denunciation.” And when the radio station Ekho Moskvy, citing “a source familiar with the situation,” reported that Surkov had supposedly proposed to Putin “[…] to turn his attention to Rosneft instead of Skolkovo,” those who saw “the hand of the Chekists” behind the resignation lost their last doubts: it was already clear that such an attack on the main property of the siloviki clan could not go unpunished.

Kryshtanovskaya, who specializes in the theory of the elite, is on the whole in agreement with this assessment. “This resignation is the result of a split in the elite which has been noticeable since the time of Medvedev’s presidency,” she explains. “Part of the elite was betting on a second term for Medvedev and believed that this would be the best path for Russia. I don’t think that Putin considers these people to be traitors, but he clearly feels uncomfortable working with them and realizes that these people are not loyal to him.” According to Kryshtanovskaya, in the last year, Surkov “[…] was deliberately pushed back.” As she explained, “Putin’s team does not want to work with people who cannot be relied on, and Surkov was relegated precisely to that group of people.”

Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin also shares the opinion that the war of the clans played an important role in Surkov’s resignation. “Now there is an attack on the relative liberals – people with common sense who understand that from time to time the chosen path must be corrected so as not to become to a catastrophe,” he believes. “Such people are being removed or forced to the political periphery so that they don’t have an opportunity to seize power.” According to Oreshkin, “the removal of Surkov is a signal to Prokhorov, Shuvalov, Chubais, the guys from Voloshin’s team – everyone who built the existing political model.”

Dmitry Orlov disagrees. “In my view, that version is unfounded. Why exactly Surkov? He is not a liberal and was never a symbol of liberalism – there are other symbols there, for example, Dvorkovich himself.”

“There is no war of clans,” Igor Bunin agrees. “The siloviki cannot do anything without a higher order from President Putin.” But oddly enough, an indirect confirmation can be glimpsed in these rebuttals. After all, the siloviki could wage their attack on “the relative liberals” on orders from Putin; and in reality, they’ve already gone after Arkady Dvorkovich, which can be seen in the criminal cases regarding Akhmed Bilalov, who is close to Vice Premier Dvorkovich.

An Alien Element

There is one more personal element in Surkov’s resignation. When, at the end of 2011, he left the Kremlin for the White House, some commentators said that his new position did not completely correspond to his abilities and to the inclinations of the chief Kremlin political technologist. Some speculated that his dissatisfaction with his work could become quite a weighty reason for his decision to step down “at his own wish.”

“I think that Surkov was tired because he was not able to fulfill the job he was assigned,” believes ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. “This is the work of a system person, and Surkov is not a system person – he is a creative intriguer who concocts various notions regarding how to deceive various people.”

“Naturally, he felt better in the presidential administration,” agrees Igor Bunin. “He was lord; he could deal with everyone. But the government is a somewhat different structure. I don’t think that he was very comfortable there.”

“His transfer to the White House was a humiliation, especially when Medvedev and his team were losing influence,” adds Kryshtanovskaya. “That’s how it happens with all people who make an incorrect political choice: first they are squeezed out to the periphery, and then fired.”

Surkov’s clashes with his colleagues at the White House didn’t add to their confidence in him. “Surkov was an alien element in the government team,” Dmitry Orlov believes. “If Natalya Timakova and Arkady Dvorkovich represent a substantive unity, then Surkov was an outsider. The remnants of conflict in relations with them lingered from the time when he was deputy head of the administration and clashed with these people, especially with Natalya Timakova.” This was a period when Dmitry Medvedev was President, and Surkov, who worked in his administration, was perceived by many as a Putin man, put in place to “keep an eye” on Medvedev’s staff.

Meanwhile, Surkov’s relations with the loyal Putin supporters, never cloudless, became tenser. According The New Times’ sources in the Kremlin and the White House, it was especially hard for Surkov to communicate with Sergei Ivanov, head of the Kremlin administration, and his first deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin. As a White House source who requested anonymity told The New Times, on 29 April, Surkov and Volodin had an outright fight: in the course of their conversation, voices were raised, as Volodin advocated a “strong-arm” policy, referencing 60% support for this idea in sociological surveys. Yet Surkov seemed to object, saying in effect:  if 80% of the people supported hanging the rich upside down, was it worth supporting? “And what, Slava, will we hang them?” Surkov heatedly asked Volodin.

Finally, the position of Prime Minister Medvedev clearly did not foster Surkov’s security. As several sources for The New Times complained, Medvedev rarely defended his subordinates, fearing that he would anger Putin and reduce his chances of returning to the Kremlin (according to the claims of people close to him, the former president really believed in such a prospect). This can be seen from the scandal surrounding Skolkovo today; although the Prime Minister, who considered this project to be one of his main achievements, has no less grounds for defending it from attacks. But unlike his now former deputy, Medvedev is remaining stubbornly silent. As a result, the admission of one of Surkov’s former subordinates that Surkov asked to resign in December of last year now looks quite realistic.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Finally, there’s one more variation on the theme of “he left himself:” that the vice premier simply decided to jump before he was pushed.

“The attack was not against Surkov, but against Medvedev,” Igor Bunin believes. “The nullification of Medvedev personally and his government is under way; all the initiatives of his presidency have been cancelled and emasculated. The government did not leave Moscow; the humanization of the prisons and the investigative bureaucracy are not visible; the victory in the war with Georgia turned out not to be Medvedev’s victory, and soon they will even return the ability to drink and drive a bit.”  The reason for this “nullification,” says Bunin, is the Prime Minister’s incorrect understanding of the current situation: “After the shake-up, Medvedev decided that he would claim second place in the tandem, but Putin doesn’t need this at all. He needs Medvedev for solving several tasks: to conduct pension reform and act as the scape goat.”

“Surkov simply felt that if he did not leave on his own accord, it would happen against his will,” says political strategist Marat Guelman, who once worked with Surkov. “Surkov is an experienced person – he sensed that the entire clienteles of Surkov and Medvedev are going to be ripped out.”

Kryshtanovskaya believes that after the autumn 2011 shuffle, the President would not insult his junior partner: “Putin is a decent person in personal relations, and he feels grateful to Medvedev who has strictly observed their agreements. Putin will never organize reprisals against Medvedev.”

But that doesn’t make it easier for Vladislav Surkov. At one time, at the very beginning of his government career, he said in an interview, “I perceive a wish as a military order. And in that sense I am much better than a person who perceives an order as a wish.” So it isn’t so important whether the notion of the necessity of his resignation was someone’s clearly-formulated wish or a vague hint – the important thing is that it looks like once again he perceived it as an order.