Surkov ousted as Kerry faces pleas for help from dissidents

May 8, 2013

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin berated his Cabinet for their failure to execute the decrees to fulfill his campaign promises. He specifically attacked the Cabinet for failing to provide adequate support to regional authorities on various matters including the provision of funds—touching on a longstanding sentiment that the regions have been neglected under Putin.

Whatever the sincerity of this upbraiding, it is clear that a cabinet reshuffle gives Putin the opportunity to present a simulacrum of the democratic process, whilst actually consolidating his power around his own personal authority. Attacking the Cabinet enables Putin to play the “man of the people” card, neutralizing widespread public dissatisfaction with the government by setting himself apart from it.

He backed his words up with “action”—or at least the impression of it—by apparently dismissing the “gray cardinal”, Vladislav Surkov, from his post of Deputy Prime Minister. Sources suggest that this was undertaken as a result of internal disagreements over the manner in which the political opposition should be suppressed: Surkov reportedly prefers a more elegant brand of repression than the thuggishness that accompanied Putin’s return to the presidency last year.

In other news, leading civil society activists met today with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, taking the opportunity to raise their concerns about Russia’s state-led crackdown on dissent.

According to veteran dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the activists discussed issues including the prosecution of foreign-funded NGOs, but did not touch upon the recent anti-Kremlin protests or the controversy surrounding the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. The subject of NGOs has assumed renewed importance in Russia, as the Justice Ministry has executed a crackdown against organizations affiliated with political activity—usually critical of the state—requiring them to register as “foreign agents.”

With the situation worsening for the forces of democracy within Russia, a firm expression of support from the U.S. could make all the difference. Yet with all eyes fixed on securing the quixotic promise of Russian support for a negotiated settlement in Syria—despite the fact that Russia has aided and abetted the Assad regime’s mass murder through weapon sales and diplomatic support— this seems unlikely.