Behind Putin's strength

SUN JOURNAL

`Gray cardinal': A political survivor, Vladislav Surkov expertly wields influence inside and on behalf of the Kremlin.

July 31, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- They call him the "gray cardinal" of the Kremlin, the political wizard who, some say, has done as much as anyone to transform President Vladimir V. Putin into arguably Russia's strongest leader since Stalin.

Vladislav Y. Surkov, a slight, intense 40-year-old former public relations expert, was named in one recent survey as the second-most influential person in Russia, after Putin.

Surkov, in an interview last month with the German magazine Der Spiegel, said the ranking was "not entirely true." Political analysts here, though, say it may be only slightly exaggerated.

Surkov, a college dropout and amateur rock musician, worked for nearly a decade for oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, now jailed. In 1998, Surkov joined the Kremlin as a political adviser under then-President Boris N. Yeltsin.

He has kept his job despite Yeltsin's retirement, the arrest and conviction of Khodorkovsky on fraud and tax charges, and the fall from grace of Aleksandr Voloshin, a mentor who quit as Kremlin chief of staff in 2003.

Olga V. Khyrstanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia's business and government leaders, describes Surkov as the person "standing behind the throne, who can sometimes be more influential than the czar himself."

As deputy chief of the presidential administration and Putin's chief political adviser, Surkov's role might be compared to that of Karl Rove, President Bush's top political aide.

But while Rove's position is threatened by scandal, Surkov's position appears unassailable, and his powers far broader. Foes complain that Surkov runs the pro-Kremlin Duma, or Russian parliament, like a drill sergeant, bullying and cursing wayward legislators. He has pressured candidates the Kremlin considers unsuitable to drop out of key political contests, including the 2002 race for the presidency of Chechnya.

He acts as the Kremlin's representative to Russia's political institutions -- including the Central Elections Commission, the Constitutional Court and the governments of the country's 89 regions.

He has also helped push through laws abolishing the direct election of governors, outlawing independent candidates to the Duma and making it harder for small parties to win seats. Critics and admirers agree that those changes almost guarantee that Putin's United Russia party will retain power after the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections.

Surkov's rise is all the more remarkable because, analysts say, he is not a member of either of the two main Kremlin factions: the siloviki, or people of power, who include former military and security officers, or the economic reformers, led by chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev.

Instead, says Aleksei Mukhin, author and director of the Center for Political Information, Surkov has carved out an independent power base through hard work and a talent for intrigue.

Take the case of Dmitry Kozak, a highly regarded staff deputy, who in recent years emerged as a Putin favorite, Mukhin said. Kozak has been mentioned as a possible successor to Putin.

After guerrillas took hostages at a school in Beslan, in the Caucasus, Surkov engineered Kozak's appointment as the Kremlin's chief representative in the Caucasus region -- one of the most difficult and thankless assignments in the government, and one that keeps Kozak far from the capital.

One political insider, who could face retribution if named, said Surkov has also fostered tensions between two liberal opposition leaders, Boris E. Nemtsov of the Union of Right Forces and Grigory A. Yavlinsky of the Yabloko Party, convincing both that they have the Kremlin's backing.

But Surkov is best known for his efforts to create what is called the nation's "managed" democracy. He is credited with dreaming up the "Marching Together" group, an effort to mobilize Russia's youth around an agenda of pro-Putin, squeaky-clean patriotism.

He engineered the founding of the United Russia party, analysts say, which came out of nowhere to capture control of the Duma in December 2003.

When the opposition swept to power in Ukraine last winter, Markov said, Surkov was planning to blunt any similar populist movement in Russia by setting up a nationwide, pro-Putin organization called "Nashi," or "Ours."

Analysts say the group appears designed to siphon recruits from opposition groups. Putin's critics add that members seem to be preparing to confront Kremlin opponents in the streets, should a Ukraine-style revolt develop.

Nashi's leaders say they are trying to turn youth away from ultra-nationalist movements. But recently, the newspaper Gazeta reported, Surkov told 3,000 Nashi members attending a political summer camp north of Moscow that part of their job was "to defend the youth from the influence of the West."

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