'Puppet-master' Putin advisor is shown the Kremlin door

Vladislav Surkov was once one of the president's most influential and deft advisers. His forced resignation suggests the Kremlin may be pursuing blunter ways of manipulating the political landscape.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov speaks before the state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow in this 2011 photo. Surkov, who was once Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief political strategist and dubbed the Kremlin's puppet master, resigned on May 8.

Vladislav Surkov, the former theater arts major who took on the job of stage-managing Russian democracy on behalf of Vladimir Putin, was abruptly shown the Kremlin door Wednesday. Most analysts see the move as a sign that an increasingly heavy-handed Mr. Putin has no further use for Mr. Surkov's elaborate and relatively gentle methods of manipulating the political landscape.

Surkov, an influential Putin advisor who helped sculpt Russia's so-called "sovereign democracy" system, told the Moscow daily Kommersant that he had tendered his resignation on April 26, but will only discuss the reasons for his departure "when it is appropriate."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested to the Kommersant FM radio station that he had been pushed out the door due to poor job performance. 

"[His resignation] is related to the high-priority task of implementing presidential decrees," Mr. Peskov said.

Often referred to as the "grey cardinal" of the Kremlin, Surkov's star had been falling since a massive protest movement hit Moscow streets in December 2011. It had been triggered by the near-universal allegations of electoral fraud committed by Surkov's own brainchild – the pro-Kremlin United Russia party – in parliamentary polls.

He was subsequently eased out of his role as Putin's deputy chief of staff and given the thankless-by-definition job of deputy prime minister in charge of modernizing Russia's economy.

"His resignation testifies to the fact that there is a real political crisis in the country. Different bureaucratic structures are at war with each other, and Russia is becoming increasingly ungovernable," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.  

"Surkov had his own vision. He tried to control the process, to reconcile different structures, and he lost," he adds.

Surkov had been a Kremlin fixture since Putin's first presidential term and is widely regarded as the chief architect of the Putin-era system of "sovereign democracy," whose basic idea is that the political system headed by Putin is the direct outgrowth of Russia's own history and public dynamics – not an import from anywhere else – and is therefore democracy.

Critics, and even many independent analysts, quickly substituted the more descriptive term "managed democracy." The phrase evoked the Kremlin's aggressive role in landscaping Russia's political garden – weeding out pesky opposition parties and independent politicians, concentrating official resources and state media attention behind the ruling United Russia party, and generally altering rules of the game to favor pro-Kremlin outcomes. 

In addition to fathering United Russia, Surkov created a bouquet of pro-Kremlin public organizations, such as the youth movement Nashi and a state-supported assembly of tame civil society groups called the Public Chamber.

Even critics were often admiring of Surkov's deft behind-the-scenes manipulation of Russian politics, which produced massive pro-Putin majorities in several elections and generally eschewed the application of crude police methods and – until the 2011 Duma polls – blatant mass electoral fraud.

The curtain dropped briefly on Surkov's almost spider-like role in September 2011, when tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov angrily quit as head of the pro-Kremlin Right Cause Party, and publicly accused Surkov of acting like a "puppet-master" and trying to micromanage all his key decisions, including party program and candidate lists.

Analysts say Surkov's fall from Kremlin grace was largely propelled by his failure to prevent or even predict the emergence of the street protest movement. When it first appeared, he made the mistake of describing the mainly-youthful, educated, and middle-class demonstrators as "the best part of society."

Many analysts say Surkov has since moved into the camp of former president and current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who appears to be under increasingly furious attack from Russia's pro-Putin conservatives, because he is perceived as the head of the more liberal, pro-Western wing of Russia's bureaucracy and business community.

In recent weeks Surkov had been engaged in a war of words with the powerful head of the Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin. Mr. Bastrykin's agency, the most powerful police body in Russia, has been investigating the alleged misappropriation of funds at Skolkovo, a futuristic Kremlin-funded technopark near Moscow that was championed by then-President Medvedev. Surkov is a supervisory board member.

"The energy with which the investigative committee publishes their suppositions evokes the feeling among normal people that a crime took place," Surkov said in a public speech in Britain last week.

"But it is just the investigative committee’s style. It is their energy. Let them prove it," he said.

It seems fairly apparent that it is no longer Surkov, but the more blunt-edged Mr. Bastrikin who is tasked with managing Russia's political outcomes these days.

Over the past year there has been a major crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs and a wave of arrests of protest leaders, who are charged with participating in elaborate, foreign-backed conspiracies aimed at fomenting violent revolution in Russia.

"Surkov is no longer needed to regulate the system in his way, because Putin has switched to much tougher measures," says Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"His departure bespeaks tectonic shifts in the foundations of Russia's political system. It was probably triggered by something more immediate, such as the Skolkovo business, but it is a sign that we are going down a very different road from the past," he adds.

As for Surkov's future intentions, he told the Russky Pioner magazine this week that he might write a novel.

"I have a plot for a political comedy based on real events," he said. 

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