Vladislav Surkov: The Return of the Puppet Master in Russia

A cataclysm occurred on the 14th of May; at least it was an upheaval for two postgraduate students at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) at the University of Birmingham. Such a momentous occasion called for a morning of coffee at the Starbucks to debate the issue and its connotations for Russia. The event was the resignation of Vladislav Surkov from his role as advisor in the Kremlin and Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Modernisation.

Here was the man who had been an integral part of the Kremlin machination since 199 under Yeltsin. In his own words he had helped “Boris Yeltsin to secure a peaceful transfer of power; among those who helped President Putin stabilize the political system; among those who helped President Medvedev liberalise it”. His role in the Kremlin was at time shady. He was considered to be the puppet master behind the regime, devising ploys and devices to maintain the regime and to keep the political system as a facade democracy to hide the vagaries of the authoritarianism that rapidly grew during Putin’s second term in office. His most eminent creation was the political ideology that underpinned the Kremlin’s mantra as the voice of the people and the only (legitimate or otherwise) option for government. In 2008 the concept of sovereign democracy was born by his pen. This ideology eulogized that there were different forms of democracy in the world, of which the derivation ‘liberal’ was one proponent in the democratic lexicon. This therefore allowed the Kremlin to advocate that Russia’s democratic political system was different to that of the West. The precepts of sovereign democracy are based around the importance of the state. The state has the purview to maintain stability and United Russia headed by Putin is the vanguard for establishing democracy and maintaining the power of the state. Although sovereign and democracy are linked in the same phrase, it is the former that is the most pertinent aspect of the ideology. Although the creed of sovereign democracy is no longer mentioned as a topic and doctrine by the Kremlin, but its values predicate and form the basis of all aspects of Kremlin policy to the current day. These factors are why the resignation of Surkov and his perceived demise from the political scene was met with such amazement in a coffee shop at Birmingham University.

Yet, it was with some amazement that Surkov was brought back from the dead so rapidly. Other elites that have left the Kremlin fold have not been so lucky. Boris Nemtsov is fighting possible prison charges, Alexei Kudrin  has set-up his own organisation to monitor the state and has been kept at arms length by his old allies. Most prominently and relevant to the argument here is the case of Dimitry Rogozin. Since 2003 and lasting until 2006 Rogozin led the now defunct Rodina party a party affiliated to the Kremlin, financed by it and acting as a systemic opposition to United Russia. Although a systemic opposition party, Rogozin on a number of occasions managed to go beyond his remit and acted beyond the Kremlin considered actions for an ‘opposition’ party. In 2006 the party was forcibly merged into A Just Russia party. Having lost the vehicle for his power base, Rogozin instigated and attempted to register a new party (Great Russia Party). For this act of petulance he was ‘promoted’ downwards and sideways to become Russian ambassador to NATO. After a vocal ambassadorship of provoking all and sundry at NATO he was re-established (almost Soviet style) into the Kremlin fold as deputy prime minister for the defence industry. Whilst, Surkov did not overstep his mark and unlike Rogozin he actually left (as far as one knows), his return to the Kremlin so quickly is remarkable, especially as he was blamed for the protests that had racked Moscow in the winter of 2011 and 2012. He had also become friendly with Medvedev and was considered to have become a liberal in the eyes of the Siloviki who are a part of Putin’s entourage. Whilst, this is unlikely as he felt that liberalism would weaken the regime and create the environment for the protests that occurred his close allegiance to Medvedev had made his stay in the Kremlin enervated. The lack of the regime’s ability to deal with the protests in a quick and meaningful way was put at his door and he became the scapegoat for the lack of the Kremlin’s ability to maintain its control.

Sadly Surkov’s return to the Kremlin was not met with the same gasps and alacrity as occurred during his resignation. My friend had returned to his parent university in Berlin and I was stuck saving vulnerable adults at work, a working environment that makes the former Soviet Union censorship of the internet appear trivial. My trills of amazement at Surkov’s return were met with compassion by my nearest work colleague and a look on her face that was probably her wondering if she should certify me.  This was unfortunate as for me it was very important.

However, one has to wonder about his return. Why has Surkov made a remarkable come back? Will he also have the same control of the Kremlin and become the ‘puppet-master’ again? Whilst, it is early to say this analysis does contend that the Kremlin has missed an ideology that it had under sovereign democracy. The Kremlin has tried to rally its supporters through a concept of nationalism, conservatism and orthodoxy. This galvanisation of a conservative ideology has been epitomised in the West with the growing homophobia, starting in St. Petersburg with laws against homosexual propaganda, before these laws became federal and of course the Pussy Riot debacle.

Politically the regime has been divided. The siloviki have engaged in hard line activities trying to disperse opposition, using riot police freely and arresting famous opposition activists (Sergei Udaltsov, Ilya Yashin, Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov). On the other hand the moderates have tried to make the playing field in the political system a little less skewed making opposition at least minimally viable and giving slightly more options (Pirate party, Pensioner party, Patriots party and Civic Platform) that are less corralled by the regime. The sudden acclamations of corruption within the elites has appeared both to have been factions of the elite jostling for power and apart from the almost caustic witch hunt against Sobyanin, they appear to have died down. United Russia the so-called party of power appears to be lurching to imminent ruin with the polar bear looking increasingly anaemic. The Kremlin has dallied in the creation of other parties and the creation of a possible new party the All-Russia People’s Front, which could plausibly undercut United Russia’s power.  The regime appears to be rudderless, staggering from one crisis to another without any real knowledge or understanding of what the people want. Increasingly disaffection is growing in Moscow and St.Petersburg and starting to seep to other town as the Kremlin appears unable to proclaim an ideology. Yes, Putin is popular and will remain so, but the maxim of the “party of crooks and thieves” has stuck on United Russia and the Kremlin as a whole. The fight against corruption, electoral changes and ‘liberalisation’ have failed to engage the populace and even managed to be viewed by the population as a cynical attempt to maintain power. The possibility of electoral law being changed to re-include the option to vote against all, has been seen by a Kommersant poll to be a means to divide the opposition as anti-Kremlin supporters do not support either the Kremlin or the opposition. Pertinently those that do support the opposition are divided and are again more likely to vote against all then for the opposition coalition. Although Kommersant is a liberal newspaper with a small readership, even the government affiliated paper Izvestiya has proclaimed that the vote against all would help United Russia consolidate power.

Whilst, time will tell whether Surkov will have the same powers behind the scenes in the Kremlin and whether he will have the opportunity to reinvigorate it with a new ideology, his return to the Kremlin is fascinating. The regime needs a new ideology; it is failing to unite the Russian population behind it and has looked increasingly weak and jaded. An ideologue with Surkov’s stature is precisely what the Kremlin needs now. Sovereign democracy as a concept gave the Kremlin values to follow that united the regime and to be frank many of the population. The Kremlin has tried to create a conservative ideology based on stability, but it is a concept that looks tired. The demonstrations and growth of the opposition have divided the Kremlin into competing factions; to such an extent that an eminent professor at a conference I attended stood up and feasibly proclaimed that Putin could be on his way out! Surkov has the ability to offer an ideology that reunites the Kremlin, creating values that re-galvanises the regime and population. His return bodes well for the Kremlin and its apparatchiks. If Surkov is given the chance he can re-invigorate the regime, his stature is that large. Surkov’s recrudence is interesting and fascinating to watch, I hope that his re-arrival re-invigorates the Kremlin. Regardless of the views that I have towards the regime and Putin, its growing weakness and infighting will only lead to the regime ripping itself asunder, which is only bad for Russia, because what would come out of the collapse of the regime is not likely to be liberal and democratic. Surkov at least has the ability to offer the Kremlin and Russia something new. His return is amazing, I wait with bated breath.

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Categories: International politics, Opinion


I am a political scientist. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg. My research is on authoritarian regimes, especially in the post-Soviet space. Thank you for reading the blog, I hope you enjoy...

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