No future for Kremlin's "grey cardinal"

RUSSurkov2020MOSCOW – Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” – a chain-smoking, secretive ideologue with a fondness for American beat poetry and rap music.

The architect of President Vladimir Putin’s political system, Mr. Surkov, 55, was a master manipulator, creating fake “opposition” parties that provided Russian voters with the illusion of genuine democracy.

Mr. Surkov also founded Nashi, a notorious Putin youth movement whose members harassed foreign diplomats and opposition figures in the early years of Mr. Putin’s rule. He is believed to have written a novel, Almost Zero, under a pseudonym, as well as lyrics for a popular Russian rock group.

Widely viewed as the political heir to Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union’s shadowy chief ideologue during the Cold War, Mr. Surkov was loathed and feared by the Russian opposition.

“[Mr. Surkov] is the lord of darkness,’ Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Kremlin critic, once said. “He has been complicit in all the vileness of the Putin era.”
Now, Mr. Surkov has become the latest apparent victim of a far-reaching political shake-up instigated by Mr. Putin, 67, that has left both his critics and his supporters guessing as to his exact intentions.

In a terse two-sentence decree, Mr. Putin announced this month that he was dismissing Mr. Surkov. He is not believed to have been offered another post. “A person as experienced and talented as Surkov will find employment,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.

Mr Surkov insisted on Wednesday that his departure from the Kremlin was his own decision.

“I created this [political] system, but I was never was a part of it,” Mr. Surkov said in comments published by Russian media. “I am interested in working in the genre of counter-realism. That is, when and if you need to act against reality, change it, remake it.” When asked if he had any enemies, Mr. Surkov replied: “I hope so. I tried so hard, after all.”

In recent years, Mr. Surkov had been in charge of Kremlin policy on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist forces have carved out two so-called people’s republics amid a conflict that has killed over 13,000 people since 2014.

International investigators said in November that recordings of intercepted telephone calls could implicate Mr. Surkov in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. All 298 people on board were killed when the plane was shot down by what investigators say was a Buk missile supplied to separatists by the Russian military.

Mr. Surkov’s abrupt departure from the political scene comes around a month since Mr. Putin proposed sweeping changes to the country’s Constitution during his annual state-of-the-nation speech. Among the amendments proposed by Mr. Putin, who celebrated two decades in power on New Year’s Eve, were an increase in the powers of parliament and a wider role for the State Council, an advisory body. The Kremlin says the proposals will be put to a nationwide vote in April.

Mr. Putin’s moves triggered the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, amid rumours of in-fighting. Mr. Medvedev, 54, was replaced by Mikhail Mishustin, a previously obscure tax official.

Mr Putin is required by Russian law to step down as president when his current and final term of office expires in 2024. His proposed amendments to Russia’s 1993 Constitution were initially seen as paving the way for the ex-KGB officer to prolong his long rule by shifting to the role of prime minister or head of the State Council in four years. But most political analysts say the final wording of Mr. Putin’s amendments contained no significant reduction in the president’s powers. The development sparked speculation that the Kremlin may be preparing to extend to the number of terms that Mr. Putin can serve.

Mr. Surkov added fuel to the discussion Wednesday when he said that Constitutional changes would reset the clock on term limits and allow Mr. Putin to stay in office until 2036, when he will be 79.

“Legal logic will make it necessary to restart the countdown of presidential terms,” said Mr. Surkov. “The restrictions of the current presidency will not be able to apply [to Mr. Putin.]”

One in every four Russians would like to see Mr. Putin remain as president beyond 2024, according to an opinion poll published by the Levada Centre, an independent think-tank in Moscow. One third said they wanted to see Mr. Putin take on another role. Thirty-two percent said, however, they wanted Mr. Putin to retire from public life altogether.

“The increase in fatigue [with Mr. Putin] among people is visible,” said Lev Gudkov, the Levada Centre director.

A government commission tasked by Mr. Putin with proposing additional changes to the Constitution has come with an array of eye-catching suggestions, including changing the official job title of the Russian head of state from “president” to “supreme leader.”

The only other official supreme leader in Russian history was Admiral Kolchak, who led the anti-Bolshevik White Army government during the Russian Civil War. He was executed by a Red Army firing squad in 1920.

The commission includes Vladimir Mashkov, an actor who played a Russian intelligence agent in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and Yelena Isinbayeva, a former Olympic pole vaulter. Only 11 members of the commission’s 75 members have a legal background, but all of them are Kremlin loyalists.

Ms. Isinbayeva was widely mocked when she admitted this month that she had never previously read Russia’s constitution, which she described as “a very important book”.

Other proposals made by Mr. Putin’s commission include granting former life-long immunity from criminal prosecution to former presidents, a formal recognition of Russia as a “victorious power” in World War Two, and legally establishing Orthodox Christianity as the country’s state religion.

It is unclear which of the commission’s proposals will make it into the draft Constitution.

Opposition figures said the proposal to grant immunity from prosecution to former president was a Kremlin ploy to ensure that Mr. Putin would never be tried in a Russian court of law. Mr. Putin has faced corruption allegations since the early 1990s, when he was a little-known deputy to the mayor of St Petersburg, his home city.

Russians plan to rally nationwide Saturday against what they say is Mr. Putin’s intention to rule for life. The protests take place on the fifth anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic who was assassinated near Red Square in 2015.

“They will be watching in the Kremlin to see how many people turn up at the Nemtsov rally,” said Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure. “[The numbers] will decide how brazenly they carry out the operation to keep Putin in power.”

Photo: Video still of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former “grey cardinal” and architect of President Vladimir Putin’s political system.
Credit: Courtesy of Yasha Levine official Twitter page. (11/20/17)

Story/photo published date: 02/27/20

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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