The Putin era’s ‘Grey Cardinal’ has apparently been dismissed over what the President’s spokesman describes elliptically as ‘the non-fulfilment of decrees.’ Paul Hansbury and Josh Black look back at Vladislav Surkov’s contribution to Russian politics and assess what his departure means for the Kremlin.
The former Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Vladislav Surkov, is a man strives to create his mythology. In 2009, he was alleged to have penned the novel Almost Zero, published under a name resembling that of his wife. This tale of politics, corruption and public relations was widely interpreted as a thinly-veiled account of his own role in Russian politics – a stage he has occupied with no little bravado since 1999.
Surkov’s exit from politics has been as dramatic and unclear as his operations. Journalists have been speculating on whether he was forced out following a blazing row, whether he will join the opposition, or whether he will engage with them as a kind of double agent.
Surkov’s life reads like a novel. After starting work in the advertising department of one of Khordokovsky’s banks, he moved into the presidential administration in time to oversee the transition from Yeltsin to Putin and remained there through to the end of the Medvedev era – a role he described modestly following his move to the White House in 2011;
“I was among those who helped Yeltsin to secure a peaceful transfer of power; among those who helped President Putin stabilise the political system; among those who helped President Medvedev liberalise it.”
Surkov remains closely associated with the concept of Sovereign Democracy – a term coined to reflect Russia’s attempt to ensure political stability while ostensibly adopting democratic institutions. Post-modernist novels, including Surkov’s own and Victor Pelevin’s ‘Generation P’ have painted Russia’s democracy as cynically manipulated by advertising agencies and UCL’s Andrew Wilson has written of ‘Virtual Politics’ – in which political technology undermines democratic institutions.
Just last week, Surkov defended the Putin administration in no uncertain terms, arguing that there was no stagnation in Russia and that the Kremlin had effectively defeated the external opposition. Critics allege, however, that thanks to Surkov’s political habits, the opposition has never had a level playing field.
Surkov has long been alleged to have had direct lines to the leaders of the systemic opposition parties. Indeed, the businessman and 2012 presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov, called Surkov “the puppet master” after claiming that his own political party was in the pocket of the Kremlin.
In recent years, Surkov had been overseeing the development of Skolkovo – a technology-development centre on the outskirts of Moscow. “Russia’s silicon valley”, as Surkov has called it, has been the subject of recent corruption probes and Surkov’s attempts to halt these have apparently been at the root of arguments that led to his departure. Moreover, some have speculated that the Russian government is using the investigation as a means of framing opposition deputies – a heavy handed tactic unsuited to Surkov’s Machiavellian ways.
The departure of Surkov, rather than Medvedev, who has long been the subject of rumours that he will be reshuffled out of power, is a reminder of how little we know about the distribution of power inside the walls of the Kremlin. We will surely know soon enough if Surkov has been forced out, and with any luck, what is going through his mind as he clears from his desk of pictures of Che Guevera, Tupac Shakur and Vladimir Putin.