Why Vladislav Surkov Was Fired

May 13, 2013
Vladimir Surkov RIA Novosti

The resignation of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov — the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” — has prompted a raft of articles speculating as to the true cause for Surkov’s departure. This article suggests that his involvement in the corruption-plagued Skolkovo project, inaugurated by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, became Surkov’s pink slip . –Ed.

On 8 May, the Kremlin press service reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has relieved Vladislav Surkov of the duties of Vice Premier – the head of the government’s staff. According to the official story, the resignation of the influential official took place “at his own wish.” Surkov wrote his request after a meeting on 7 May devoted to fulfilling Putin’s election initiatives, according to Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.

On the previous day, the Vice Premier defended the cabinet of ministers after the President criticized them for not fulfilling his orders. In Surkov’s opinion, “from the perspective of formal discipline, and the timely submission of reports, the government has been working rather blamelessly.” Putin did not react to this comment; according to Peskov, it was after this meeting that the president decided to approve Surkov’s resignation request. The move was “related to the topic of top-priority tasks in realizing the President’s May decrees and election promises, and the functioning of the commissions at the White House that were involved in implementing these decrees,” the Press Secretary claimed to news outlets.

However, the reasons for the dismissal were not at all those indicated by Peskov, two sources in the government told Forbes. Even the date of the submission of the request cited by the President’s Press Secretary was refuted by Surkov himself: in a commentary given to Kommersant, Surkov stated that he submitted his request for resignation on 26 April, not after the meeting on 7 May.

The attack on Surkov began months before the 7 May meeting –  a video tape was aired by almost all the government television channels, showing Surkov faltering several times, clearly nervous while reporting to Putin, who is looking at him sternly.

Starting in early February, investigative agencies and the Accounts Chamber began to consecutively file financial and criminal complaints about the activity at Skolkovo, the innovation city and main project of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Surkov personally oversaw this project and remains on the Board of Trustees of the Skolkovo Fund.

“From the very beginning, this looked like a deliberate attack on Surkov and his boss Medvedev, behind which could be their opponents from the presidential administration – Sergei Ivanov [former rival of Medvedev in the battle for the status of “successor”—Forbes] and Vyacheslav Volodin [who replaced Surkov in the post of first deputy chief of the presidential administration— Forbes],” said a source in the government.

This story was followed by an information attack against Minister of Education Dmitry Livanov, who was considered to be a member of “Surkov’s team.” Deputies of the State Duma close to Volodin, among others, were behind this. Finally, on 18 April, the criminal case appeared against Alexei Beltyukov, Vice President of the Skolkovo Fund, for misappropriation of funds in relation to the payment for lectures by Ilya Ponomarev, the State Duma Deputy from Just Russia, and a leader of the street opposition.

This last episode was key in the story of Surkov’s resignation.

Another source within the President’s staff claims that in his testimonies to the Investigative Committee, Beltyukov indicated that Surkov had authorized the transfer of the money to Ponomarev.

Ponomarev says he does not know anything about this. Surkov does not have a direct relationship with the Fund, and the role of the Vice Premier of Skolkovo was not formalized in any way, Ponomarev told Forbes. According to Ponomarev, Surkov only fulfilled the role of overseer of the “innovation city” within the government. In the research work he performed for his honorarium from the Fund, Ponomarev expresses “particular gratitude” to Surkov. During an interrogation by the Investigative Committee on 7 May, Ponomarev was not asked a single question about Surkov by investigators.

An unexpected speech by Surkov played the role of catalyst in the conflict with the Kremlin. On 1 May, Surkov commented on the case against Belytukov in a talk at the London School of Economics. In response to the complaints by law-enforcement agencies, he advised the office of Alexander Bastrykin not to be hasty in their conclusions, especially regarding a project with such a sensitive reputation. “If some pig tarnishes your reputation, it doesn’t mean that all of your business should come to naught, right? You just have to kick the pig out and continue to work,” Surkov said.

The reaction wasn’t long in coming: on 7 May, an article came out in the newspaper Izvestia by Vladimir Markin, Press Secretary of the Investigative Committee, criticizing Surkov’s London performance.  Surkov himself was described by Gen. Markin as a “handler for particularly effective managers” who prefers to “perform the aria of a Moscow guest” in the British capital “to a targeted audience.” Markin harshly called on Surkov not to politicize the anti-corruption investigation.

Surkov, for his part, limited his remarks to saying that he didn’t comment on “graphomania.” A highly-placed source in the government defended Surkov. He expressed puzzlement over the publication of the article. The source noted that Markin made it seem as if “someone is in the leadership of the very government against which he is protesting.” The anonymous source, a supporter of Surkov, summarized the article as follows: “It’s like a political denunciation.”

There really was a denunciation in some form, a government source told Forbes. According to the source, it was brought to the attention of Putin by the Kremlin administration and the power ministries that Surkov had authorized the financing of one of the leaders of the “Bolotnaya movement” and that this was the real reason for his dismissal, and Surkov’s speech hastened the matter. According to another source in the government, there were suspicions in the presidential administration that Surkov was protecting and financing other leaders of Bolotnaya – the Gudkovs. Peskov dismissed the claim that Surkov’s resignation was related to the Skolkovo story.

Ivanov, Volodin and the powerful ministers around Putin were the initiators of an attack not so much on Surkov as on Medvedev, says the source. In transferring to the government along with Medvedev (he became Vice Premier even before the start of Putin’s third term), Surkov “performed the role of a barrier who limited the influence of the presidential administration on the government,” said the source. “Putin deliberately surrounded himself with a weak composition of government in the staff sense, so that after the passing of unpopular reforms he could sacrifice the ministers. The departure of the Vice Premier and his entourage is symbolic; the resignation after the article from the Press Secretary of the Investigative Committee looks like a planned attack by the powerful ministers,” agrees Igor Bunin, Director of the Center for Political Technologies.

A source close to the premier says that it was hard to persuade Surkov to remain “if he wants to leave himself.” Natalya Timakova, Medvedev’s Press Secretary, told Forbes that Medvedev met with him several times before his resignation and was kept informed of his decision. She confirmed that the request was submitted back on 26 April.

Forbes was unable to obtain a comment from Volodin’s office. At Surkov’s office, Forbes was told that the ex-official is not yet answering questions from journalists.