He was a colossus in his field, renowned for his skilful manipulation of his rivals and the media, as well as for being a tenacious survivor and a tactical genius. No, not Sir Alex Ferguson, but Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin insider who also resigned today.
For more than a decade, Mr Surkov was perhaps the single most influential ideologue in Russia. He coined the concept of “sovereign democracy” championed by the President, Vladimir Putin, and was regarded as the architect of the tightly controlled political system that has dominated Putin’s Russia. He was referred to as the “grey cardinal of Russian politics”; a puppet-master and manipulator extraordinaire who was one of the most powerful people in the country.
Mr Surkov, 48, was moved from his shadowy role in the presidential administration to the post of Deputy Prime Minister in December 2011, and since then has been responsible for modernisation and innovation in the Russian economy. Now he has departed the political scene entirely, possibly falling victim to a vicious behind-the-scenes battle inside the Russian elite.
Usually, the Kremlin’s battles are conducted in the utmost secrecy, but in recent days Mr Surkov had traded public barbs with the spokesman for the powerful Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin. The committee, seen as the preserve of a hawkish hardline faction within Russian politics, was investigating Skolkovo, the “Russian silicon valley” project Mr Surkov oversaw.
Mr Surkov, who bears a passing resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, was no ordinary grey Russian technocrat. Although he almost never gave interviews to the media, the occasional glimpses that the outside world was given into his life hinted at an unusually eccentric character for someone in his position.
He wrote rock songs, is widely believed to have written a nihilistic novel under a pseudonym, and also penned occasional columns for a Russian magazine on topics ranging from the art of Joan Miró to his appreciation of Bollywood films. He kept portraits of Tupac Shakur and Che Guevara, among others, in his Kremlin office.
Described by a source who used to work in the presidential administration as a “power guy, not a money guy”, Mr Surkov has always given the impression of a man who enjoys being in control of political processes, rather than who is in the Kremlin to benefit from the access to shady illicit funds that such posts reportedly offer. Half Chechen and with a penchant for wearing slim black ties, Mr Surkov is famously ruthless, and began his career working for oligarchs in the 1990s, including the now-jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
During his years in the presidential administration, Mr Surkov was known for his personal control over much of what was shown on state-controlled television, and for his oversight of the “managed democracy” that became a hallmark of Mr Putin’s political system. He would arrange for the creation of “loyal opposition” parties to give the semblance of competition, and then disband them if they became too genuinely popular. When Mikhail Prokhorov, at one point Russia’s richest man, set up a political party in the run-up to the 2011 parliamentary elections, he did so with the support of Mr Surkov, but then became angry about the level of control the Kremlin official wanted to have over his new party.
“There is a puppet-master in this country who long ago privatised the political system and has for a long time misinformed the leadership of the country,” said the oligarch at a hastily convened press conference. “His name is Vladislav Yurevich Surkov.” At the time, Mr Prokhorov said he would demand a meeting with Mr Putin and the then-President, Dmitry Medvedev, and insist that Mr Surkov was sacked.
Mr Prokhorov lost that battle, but Mr Surkov was indeed sidelined a few months later, moved from the Kremlin to the Deputy Prime Minister’s job. Some put this down to a more hawkish mood in the Kremlin ahead of Mr Putin’s return to the top job. The President has replaced Mr Surkov’s nuanced understanding of moderate authoritarianism with a more hard-nosed and direct approach, since it was threatened by massed street protests that began in December 2011, shortly before Mr Putin’s re-election. “I am too odious a person for this Brave New World,” said Mr Surkov at the time, with a characteristically ironic, nebulous flourish.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Mr Surkov resigned of his own volition, because of the government’s inability to fulfil a number of recent presidential decrees. Many analysts, however, speculated that he was pushed out and suggested that the Prime Minister and Mr Putin’s former protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, could also soon be shown the door as Mr Putin tries to balance different interest groups within the government.
Mr Surkov refused to elaborate on the reasons for his resignation, saying he would do so later, “when it is appropriate to do so”. He told Russian media that his future plans included writing “a political comedy based on real events”.
Kremlin yes-men: Putin’s inner circle
Believed to be a former intelligence operative, Mr Sechin is as secretive as Mr Surkov and rarely gives interviews. Like Mr Surkov, he was a deputy chief of the presidential administration and was later moved to Deputy Prime Minister, roles that concealed the real size of his power. He is widely believed to be the head of a hardline faction within the Russian government.
Like many in the Russian elite, Mr Medvedev has known Mr Putin since the 1990s in Petersburg, when Mr Putin worked for the then-mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. But Mr Medvedev lacks the KGB background of most of the inner circle. Mr Putin made him President from 2008 to 2012 and he is now Prime Minister. Despite this, he is seen as a weak figure politically and many expect Mr Putin to sack him soon.
Russia’s long-standing finance minister was sacked in 2011, but remains close to Mr Putin. Fiscally conservative but socially relatively liberal, Mr Kudrin is a rare progressive voice in the ear of Mr Putin, and has spoken out against the crackdown on opposition forces.
The man who replaced Mr Surkov as deputy head of the presidential administration is a ruthless ladder-climber and hard worker. Many say he has brought a tough edge to Mr Putin’s third term in the Kremlin, stifling dissent and launching a crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs.