The May 8 resignation of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov shows that as dynamics within the Kremlin change, power struggles among the elite are growing even fiercer. President Vladimir Putin has been trying to break down the country's traditional clans and restructure the elite's power bases, and he has tried to win back lost public support. These efforts include anti-corruption campaigns and government dismissals. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been under increased public scrutiny for perceived shortcomings during his presidency. Feeling the pressure from above, Medvedev could be using Surkov as a scapegoat so that he does not lose his position in the Kremlin's hierarchy.
Before 2012, Surkov was one of Putin's top advisers and ideologists. As such, he led a group of reform-minded clan members known as the civiliki, and during that time his power within the Kremlin clan structure surpassed Medvedev's.
Surkov understood how to parlay social sentiment into support for the Kremlin, and particularly for Putin. Surkov was one of the masterminds of Russia's Nashi youth movement, which meant to create a pro-government class in a post-Soviet Russia. He helped design a program known as "managed democracy," in which Putin started to create new political groups to account for different political views in the country. Surkov was also a champion for the Skolkovo project, which was designed to bring technological innovation to Russia. His power reached its height from 2008 to 2012, when Medvedev — his civiliki clan ally — became president and Putin sidelined rivals in another clan, known as the siloviki.
However, Surkov began to lose his power and prestige in 2011, when massive protests spread throughout Russia. At Surkov's behest, Putin initially dismissed the protests, which were prompted by allegations of electoral fraud, but the protests quickly evolved into anti-Kremlin and anti-Putin protests. Failing to see the shifts taking place in Russian society, Surkov believed his managed democracy and Nashi movement plans would trump protest sentiment. They did not, however, and in late 2011, Surkov was demoted from his advisory and ideological positions, and the Kremlin scrambled to contain the social uprisings.
A Willing Scapegoat?
The timing of Surkov's resignation — more than a year since his demotion — is notable. Recently Putin has publicly berated his own government for failing to meet the needs of the Russian people and for failing to effectively execute his orders. He has tried to win back public support by dismissing his loyalists, including Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Surkov's resignation is being attributed to these efforts, with a government spokesman saying Surkov did not carry out Putin's decrees.
The resignation also comes after Russia's Investigative Committee, a siloviki-run group, launched an investigation into embezzlement allegations directed at Skolkovo President Alexei Beltyukov, whom Surkov oversees. Surkov responded by chastising the Investigative Committee earlier this week (such attacks are rare, so it is possible that Surkov knew his political end was near).
The Kremlin has been on a fairly sincere campaign to crack down on government corruption, another target of public scorn. Several Russian lawmakers have resigned, and major anti-corruption probes have been launched into a number of the state's top firms.
But perhaps more important, Surkov's resignation comes amid increased criticism of fellow civiliki clan member Medvedev. Several recent documentaries and media stories outline how Medvedev was an inadequate president who damaged Russia's international standing. This led to rumors that Medvedev's political career was in jeopardy. If Surkov is acting as a willing scapegoat for Medvedev, his resignation could be temporary fix for securing Medvedev's position among the Kremlin hierarchy.
Medvedev is trying to hold onto his position as Putin reconfigures the country's power structures. And as these reconfigurations continue, power struggles among the political elite will continue to intensify.