By Charles Clover, Financial Times, MOSCOW — Russia’s deputy prime minister, Vladislav Surkov, resigned Wednesday, becoming the third leading cabinet official to leave Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s year-old government.
The Kremlin said in a statement that President Vladimir Putin had accepted Surkov’s resignation, one day after Putin reprimanded the government for failing to carry out all of his presidential orders and decrees.
“It is of his own volition,” Dmitry Peskov, a presidential spokesman, said. “It’s to do with the fact that decrees were not carried out.”
Surkov’s departure ends, at least for the time being, a 13-year political career that saw him become the preeminent political mind in the Kremlin, credited with being the architect of Russia’s present political system, tightly managed from the top down, which he dubbed “sovereign democracy.”
For a decade, he led the Kremlin’s Department of Domestic Politics as deputy chief of staff to Putin and then Medvedev. However, his political downfall began in December 2011, when he was summarily transferred to his present job after the political machine he had constructed began to malfunction amid anti-Kremlin street protests.
At the time, he appeared to take sides with street protesters, calling them “our best people” in a newspaper interview.
“Surkov became a Carbonaro,” said Konstantin Remchukov, chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow daily, comparing him to the 19th-century Italian secret society dedicated to liberal reforms.
Marat Guelman, a former political consultant who worked with Surkov on several projects, said the outgoing minister had become “marginalized” under Putin.
“He was caught in a paradigm shift. Today we see a return to tradition, to obscurantism. I think he himself wanted out,” Guelman said.
After his 2011 transfer, Surkov wisecracked, “Stabilization has eaten its young,” evoking French revolutionary Georges Danton’s remark that “the revolution has eaten its young” as he stood before the guillotine.
His departure will be interpreted as yet another blow to Medvedev, whose cabinet members have been picked off in political battles, and could signal that the prime minister’s position is under threat.
Few observers missed the irony that, in his run-in with Putin, Surkov met his political demise at the very hands of the arbitrary and unaccountable regime which he worked years to create.
“He was used to working in comfort, defended from external threats by his superiors,” said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy, said of Surkov. “In fact, he himself created such threats for others.”
Surkov originally tendered his resignation April 26, according to Natalia Timakova, a spokeswoman for Medvedev. However, a presentation by Surkov at the London School of Economics a few days later, in which he heavily criticized the handling by Russia’s law enforcement agencies of an investigation into the finances of Skolkovo — a high-tech innovation center financed by the government on the outskirts of Moscow — seems to have played the decisive role in Putin’s decision to relieve him of his duties.
Addressing his London audience this month, Surkov sarcastically said the “energetic work” of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI, “risked doing unjustified damage to Skolkovo’s reputation and putting off foreign investors.”
“In my view, talking too loudly about offenses before any court decision is perhaps not right,” he said.
These comments appear to have caused a backlash in the Kremlin.
“My reading is that [Surkov’s ouster] is not because Putin criticized the government, it’s because of Surkov’s speech in London,” said Alexander Lebedev, the oligarch and billionaire owner of two London newspapers. “It is not very politically correct for a deputy prime minister to go around criticizing law enforcement agencies, especially from abroad.”
A Moscow banker who requested anonymity added: “How would it look in London if a U.K. cabinet minister flew to Moscow and held a press conference where he accused the law enforcement [agencies] of incompetence?”
Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, published an article Tuesday in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia responding to Surkov’s criticisms. In a piece titled “When viewing from London, don’t lay the blame at someone else’s doorstep,” he accused Surkov of making his criticisms “in front of a target audience.”
“It is a trend now to be a political prisoner, it guarantees you the attention of the BBC and support from Amnesty International,” Markin wrote.
The Investigative Committee began probing the Skolkovo project last month, publicly accusing its deputy president, Alexei Beltyukov, of embezzling $750,000, which is accused of paying to parliamentary deputy Ilya Ponomarev, who is known for his opposition activity.
Ponomarev said he believed that Surkov and Skolkovo were being victimized for political activities; the payments he received for his work on the project were seen in some parts of the state as financial support for opposition activities by those close to Medvedev. “This is part of a broader attack on the government’s liberals” by investigators and more conservative forces in the government, Ponomarev said.
“They are using this episode to try to tell Putin, look, they are Bolotnaya and not loyal,” he said. Bolotnaya Square has been the site of repeated mass anti-Kremlin protests.
Ponomarev said that he stopped receiving fees from Skolkovo in November 2011, before the protests began, and that he had not asked for a prolongation of his contract there because of his new involvement in the opposition.
Ponomarev said the sacking of ministers such as Oleg Govorun, the minister of regional development who resigned under criticism from Putin in October, and Anatoly Serdyukov, the defense minister sacked the following month amid corruption allegations, and now Surkov constituted an attack on Medvedev’s circle by their political enemies in the Kremlin.
Medvedev’s job was probably safe because of a deal with Putin struck in 2011 for the two men to swap jobs the following year, he added. “Putin would not break his word on that. If Medvedev doesn’t resign himself, he will be guaranteed a job till the end of his term.”
However, the selective picking off of his cabinet may be intended as a way to pressure him. “Because of that, Medvedev can say if I’m not free in my HR polices, then I have to quit. But it has to be Medvedev’s decision,” Ponamarev said.
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