By Dan Peleschuk
In what some are calling a concession to the scores of anti-establishment protesters who have flooded the streets in recent weeks, the Kremlin bumped chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov from his post as deputy head of the presidential staff. Yet the consequences of his departure – he’ll reportedly refrain from participating in domestic politics – remain unclear. Experts said the move is the latest in a political reshuffle intended to consolidate power ahead of the March presidential elections.
Removing Surkov, long painted as the Kremlin’s shadowy “gray cardinal,” from the inner workings of domestic politics means removing the very mastermind of the system that has buoyed Vladimir Putin and United Russia throughout Putin’s tenure. Credited with crafting his unique form of “sovereign democracy,” Surkov has provided the logistics and ideological support for what Putin and other officials have touted as the successful stabilization of a country thrown off course by the chaotic 1990s, but what critics allege has been the often brutal consolidation of power and rollback of democratic freedoms.
Surkov’s commentary on the matter was just as mysterious as the man himself. In a brief interview with Interfax, he commented: “I am too odious for this brave new world.” Then, amidst laughter, he noted that, “Stabilization is devouring its children…No one can stay in one place [for too long].”
His legacy, to be sure, is mixed. With Surkov’s guidance, the Putin regime molded post-Soviet Russia into a bastion of “stability” which saw, finally, the emergence of a relatively prosperous middle class. But as discontent has risen in recent months, Surkov has been increasingly identified with the perceived manipulation, cynicism and arrogance of the authorities. In the past few months alone, he has been labeled as the Kremlin’s “puppet master,” and his name has become synonymous with heavily censored state television news broadcasts.
And now, Surkov is losing, at least on paper, the position he has held since 1999, when Putin first came to power. His new post as deputy prime minister for economic modernization and innovation, moreover, is a curious choice. In this position – again, at least on paper – he will play no role in domestic politics. Yet for a man who seems so thoroughly devoted to managing the Russian political system, simply painting him out of the picture seems unrealistic.
Billionaire presidential hopeful Mikhail Prokhorov, who publicly trashed Surkov in September before being removed by the Kremlin from his leadership of the Right Cause Party, believes Surkov’s dismissal was just another in the latest series of meaningless reshuffles in the Kremlin hierarchy. “They are just moving people from one place to another,” he told The New York Times on December 27. “If they’re serious, I wonder why instead of sacking a series of ineffective officials, they are making these strange rearrangements and appointments.”
But the move is indeed one of several official movements in the upper echelons of the Kremlin during the past week or so that have seen Putin allies fan out to positions of power. Putin loyalist and longtime Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov stepped down recently and was replaced by former Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, in turn, was replaced with another staunch Putin ally, former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Some interpreted the Kremlin’s reshuffle as a response to the growing tide of street protests over the allegedly falsified December 4 Duma elections, though its effect is unlikely to be significant.
Experts believe that, despite the “myth” of his deep influence, Surkov is indeed on his way out. Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider and independent political expert, said the ideologue lost out in a power struggle with his successor, Vyacheslav Volodin, formerly the head of Putin’s governmental staff, for the prime minister’s patronage. “Volodin has managed to distance Vladislav Surkov from Vladimir Putin’s body…Vladimir Putin now trusts Volodin more than Surkov, so he appointed him top political manager of Russia for the coming period,” he said.
Moreover, Belkovsky noted, Surkov was used to a position of power that he used, in part, to craft the enduring myth surrounding him and his influence within the Kremlin. “Now, he has got just a branch where everything is unclear,” he said. “There is no concept of modernization yet, there is no modernization budget – nobody understands what it is – and so this new position is much lower, much less influential than the previous one.”
Others claim Surkov’s reassignment completes a process of political reconsolidation designed to shore up power during a time of greater political turmoil. “It is necessary now that all political affairs and processes run straight through Putin,” Alexei Makarkin, the president of the Center for Political Technologies, told Gazeta.ru. “Ivanov and Volodin,” two proven and longtime Putin loyalists, “will now manage the administration.” ....
Putin, playing Poker or Chess?
Russian leader Vladimir Putin urges an end to absurdist doubt regarding his political longevity, and a focus on reality — such as the triumphant energy deals with which he closed out 2011. Putin is referring to a surprising, double-flanking maneuver in Turkey and Ukraine that gives Russia the apparent advantage in the late stages of a contest for energy market — and, some fear, geopolitical — domination in Europe. But Putin’s tenor also suggests a decided shift to the past in Russia’s relationship with the world — the “reset” of relations with the U.S. is over, writes theFinancial Times’ Charles Clover. Putin — whose administration last week issued a formal reportaccusing the U.S. of “mass and flagrant abuses of human rights” — is clearly prepared for the type of fisticuffs last seen during the depths of the George W. Bush Administration.
Can one write off this clutch of anti-Western activity to domestic politics — Putin singing a tune that he thinks plays well with Russian voters ahead of the March 4 election, in which he is seeking a return to the Kremlin for a third term? It seems more complicated than that — Putin is playing to the gallery, but events outside Russia also are motivating him to behave at turns opportunistically; other times, they are causing him to lash out apprehensively.
Putin’s energy gambit is an example of him acting on the opportunistic side, specifically in the realm where Russian politics frequently find animation — in the construction, or blockage, of energy pipelines. In the current case, Putin has managed to seriously out-maneuver U.S. and European political leaders by advancing the prospects of South Stream, a proposed $21 billion natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, crossing underneath the Black Sea.
First, Putin last Wednesday got Turkey — which since the mid-1990s has played only for the Western team when it comes to pipeline politics — to cross over just this once, and allow South Stream to occupy its territorial waters in the Black Sea. Then on Friday, he followed up the coup with an orchestrated television appearance in which he casually agreed to a suggestion by Alexei Miller, the head of natural gas giant Gazprom, to accelerate South Stream by a year, and begin to build it by the end of 2012.
If this actually happens, it could mean that South Stream would be ready in 2014, and not 2015 as previously reckoned. That would gravely impact Western proposals for Nabucco, a rival natural gas pipeline intended also to serve Europe, but transport only non-Russian gas. Nabucco’s proponents advocate it as a way to reduce Europe’s reliance on Moscow, and hence a feared danger of gas-fueled Russian political advantage on the continent.
All of this happens while the U.S. and Europe are preoccupied by their own set of financial crises. Here, the Wall Street Journal’s Charles Forelle sums up Europe’s in a highly recommended 23-minute documentary:
Yet, as suggested, this is a big if. When it comes to pipeline politics, little is how it appears on the surface. In this case, there is much speculation that Putin actually has little interest in actually building South Stream. Rather his objective is dual, in this view of events — to thwart Nabucco, and to frighten neighboring Ukraine — through which almost all Russian gas currently travels to Europe — into signing a highly favorable (to Russia) gas deal.
Ukraine certainly perceives Putin’s most recent moves as political hardball. Putin’s aim formerly seemed to be to get a high price for gas. But in the last couple of years, his appetite has grown to owning pipelines and other energy infrastructure in the countries where Gazprom operates. In the case of Ukraine, he wants a large share of the state pipeline company.
Given nationalist Ukrainian politics, such a move could be politically fatal to President Viktor Yanukovich. Putin’s moves so startled Ukraine that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov went onto Facebook and threatened to sue Russia. It is not clear what grounds there would be for a suit, yet the sentiment is notable.
As regards price, the sides are astonishingly far apart. The picture is a mirror into the old era of natural gas — one undergoing an utter transformation because of new supplies of shale gas and the invention of efficient, ocean-going liquefied natural gas supertankers — in which little pockets of the world charge wildly different prices for the same commodity. In this case, Russia is asking Ukraine for roughly $11.42 for 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or almost four times the U.S. price of about $3. For its part, Ukraine says it may be willing to do a pipeline deal — if it can pay $7.14 per 1,000 cubic feet, or 2.3 times the U.S. price (in the language the Europeans speak, Russia wishes to charge Ukraine $400 per 1,000 cubic meters; Ukraine wants to pay $250. The conversion of cubic feet to cubic meters is roughly 1:35).
This set of circumstances has to have Putin gloating. Until recently, Russia’s prospects had been clouded by the challenge of shale gas, which Poland, Hungary and other European countries may start producing, and the arrival in Europe of LNG from Qatar. Such new supplies could undermine Russia because Gazprom’s tax payments account for some 20 percent of total state revenue.
But at once Gazprom’s — and thus Russia’s — prospects are reversed. Last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan, by reverberating in Europe in the form of the ordered shut-down of German and other nuclear power plants, increases demand for Russian natural gas. Nabucco — the Western pipeline champion — has badly stumbled by failing to find sufficient gas to transport.
The Obama Administration — as politically preoccupied as the Europeans — has not even managed to get its political opponents in the U.S. Senate to formally confirm its choice as ambassador to critical Azerbaijan, a diplomat named Matthew Bryza. And now Putin has put Russia in the catbird seat with the deal with Turkey.
Yet all is not well for Putin. The Arab Spring makes him nervous. Already, opponents fired up over his sense of political entitlement — Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, casually announced in September that they would swap positions; they regarded the nod of Russian voters as a formality — have been in the streets (pictured above, Moscow street scene on Friday).
The latter is what has most likely caused Putin to lash out at the U.S. The problem is that the Arab Spring is not going away soon, and the street politics it has propagated in Russia may not either....