Architect of Putin's political system resigns

May 08, 2013, 11:29 AM EDT
The first first deputy head of the Kremlin staff, Vladislav Surkov (R), speaks with an unidentified man in Georgiyevsky (Saint George's) Hall in the Great Kremlin Palace in the Moscow Kremlin, on December 22, 2011, before President Dmitry Medvedev's annual state of the nation address.
AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW (AP) — Vladislav Surkov, a longtime Kremlin strategist considered the architect of the tightly controlled political system created under President Vladimir Putin, resigned his post of deputy prime minister on Wednesday.

His ouster followed an unusually public feud with investigators over a criminal investigation into Skolkovo, a government project to promote innovation modeled on Silicon Valley. Surkov was overseeing the ambitious project.

A statement on the Kremlin website said Surkov had resigned, but many believe he was forced out as part of increasing infighting within the Russian political elite. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Surkov resigned after the president criticized Cabinet members on Tuesday for failing to fulfill his orders.

While working under Putin in the Kremlin administration from 2000 to 2008, Surkov designed the political system that came to be known as "managed" or "sovereign" democracy. Under the system that is Surkov's legacy, only parties and candidates approved by the Kremlin are allowed to take part in elections and appear on state television, while all others are kept on the sidelines.

After Putin stepped aside in 2008 because of term limits, Surkov stayed in the Kremlin to work with Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

As Putin prepared to return to the presidency in 2012, however, a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December 2011 set off a series of unprecedented street protests demanding free elections and an end to Putin's rule. In late December 2011, Surkov was reassigned from the presidential administration to the government, where he was appointed a deputy prime minister in charge of economic modernization. With the transfer, he lost his job as Putin's political puppet master.

Putin won his third term in the spring of 2012 and set out to tighten the screws on the opposition and silence dissent.

Surkov soon found himself again working for Medvedev, whom Putin had named prime minister. Skolkovo was one of Medvedev's initiatives and Surkov was overseeing the development of the advanced research center.

In this role, Surkov came under attack from investigators who in April accused a Skolkovo executive of embezzling $750,000 in state funds. While speaking to students in London last week, Surkov sharply criticized the investigators, questioning their ability to prove anyone's guilt.

A biting rebuke from the spokesman of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, was published Tuesday in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia. Markin said a Cabinet member should not be allowed to keep his seat after criticizing his country while on a foreign trip.

Surkov's ouster was seen as part of a power struggle between members of the security and law enforcement agencies around Putin who favor his more authoritarian approach to ruling Russia, and those who have supported Medvedev's meek efforts to modernize the Russian economy and liberalize its political system.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said what happened with Surkov showed that the "the path chosen by Vladimir Putin a year ago — directed at a toughening of his administration, a consolidation of his power and personal control — is not subject to change."

"Surkov tried to withstand the Investigative Committee's attack on Skolkovo, but they devoured him," Oreshkin said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Surkov, 48, has not yet commented on his resignation or future plans, but said he has an idea for a book. It would be a "political comedy based on real events," he is quoted telling the editor of Russky Pioner, a magazine where he is a columnist.

Surkov has written lyrics for rock groups and is believed to be the author of a bestselling satirical novel about the publishing world.