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Update No: 386  (26/05/13)

Summary: The major event to have occurred in the past month comes on the domestic front, in the form of the departure of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, who many have credited as the godfather of the system of sovereign democracy, synonymous with Putinism. His departure has sparked conjecture as to how the appearance of Putinism and its political apparatus will change in the future. Additionally, we have seen a spy scandal cloud relations between the US and Russia, and ongoing crackdowns on civil society and the political opposition which Gary Kasparov , former Chess champion and opposition leader characterized thus: Commenting on the departure of former deputy Prime Minister Surkov, former grey eminence from the Kremlin: “Vladislav Surkov leaving is more confirmation that in a choice between murderers and thieves, Putin is going with the murderers. No subtlety needed now.”

The month of May saw the one-year-anniversary of Moscow's Bolotnaya square rallies, which to many marked the height of popular anti-Putin sentiment, resulting in the marching of 100,000 people last year and the subsequent arrest of 27 protesters. Their release has, for the past year, been a key element of the opposition movement's demands. In other news, there has been a significant shift within the political elite with the sudden departure of Vladislav Surkov, one time Chief of Staff, subsequent Deputy Prime Ministe,r who was widely credited as one of the most skilled political strategists of his generation, single handedly responsible for designing Putin’s political system. In addition to this, there are continuing problems with Washington, with a recent spy scandal underlining perennial tensions.

One year on from protests against Putin's inauguration for a third term as President, Bolotnaya Square once more played host to an opposition rally. On May 7, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Moscow to demand the release of those who were held for participating in opposition rallies last year. As usual police estimates offered much smaller statistics, suggestion there were only 8,000 people. The demonstration, which was sanctioned by the city authorities, was blighted by tragedy however, when a falling loud speaker killed a volunteer who was installing sound equipment in the square. There was some debate as to whether it would be appropriate to still hold the rally, but it was decided that it should go ahead. Alexei Navalny, the protest leader who coined the term 'the party of crooks and thieves' to describe the ruling United Russia party, did not refrain from attending the rally despite currently facing trial for alleged embezzlement. He urged protestors to "throw Putin out of the kremlin!" and told an enthusiastic crowd, "you! — have the impudence to demand that the country not be ruled by crooks and thieves. You have the impudence to demand that roads be built for a normal cost and not 300% in kickbacks." There has been much conjecture as to whether the protest movement has lost its momentum since its apex, between December 2011 and May 2012. The smaller turnout figures would indicate that the movement has been attenuated somewhat. One student present at the recent event told the press, "I thought there would be more of us here … Lots of people are afraid, I guess.”

There is considerable reason to be afraid. The crackdown against civil society continues. Freedom of speech is under constant threat, as three recent ratings by prominent Western media watchdogs to mark World Press Freedom Day demonstrated. President Putin kept a place on the ‘Predators of Freedom of Information’ index by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. The trial of newspaper owner and tycoon Alexander Lebedev has also drawn attention to rights abuses. Lebedev is facing trial for punching property tycoon Sergei Polonsky during a heated debate on state-run channel NTV. Lebedev, who could spend five years in jail if found guilty, claims that the trial is motivated by his criticisms of the Kremlin. “It's the government that's against me," the “London Evening Standard” backer told reporters outside the Moscow courtroom. Putin has made no secret of the fact that he considers Lebedev’s behaviour ‘hooliganism".

Additionally, aggressive treatment of NGOs rolls on. Following the decree to have all NGOs which receive foreign funding labelled ‘foreign agents’, human rights activists have registered "267 inspections of NGOs from 56 regions of Russia carried out by prosecutors." This information came from Dmitry Kolbasin, an official representative of the human rights association Agora, which is one such organisation. The list of NGOs subject to raids is expanding daily. Recent victims include the independent pollster, the Levada centre; the Moscow School of Political Studies; the Urals Human Rights group; and the Public Verdict human rights foundation. The ecological activist group "Crane Homeland," which runs a protected site for cranes and storks, has also become a registered body. All of this has contributed to a climate in which civil society feels routinely under surveillance and intimidated. Upon his May 8 visit to Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with leading Russian human rights activists, among them the Helsinki Group chief Lyudmila Alekseyeva, to discuss this negative trend, which concerns the US to the extent that ‘foreign funding’ of agencies is a byword for spying.

Upon which note, a recent blip on the horizon of Moscow's relations with Washington came in the form of an espionage scandal. On May 14, Ryan Fogle, a diplomat working at the US embassy in Moscow was arrested allegedly trying to encourage a FSB officer to inform. His arrest was captured on camera and images quickly disseminated across TV channels. Fogle, armed with a rather risible set of wigs and disguises, carried a letter which offered from $100,000 to up to one million dollars for "long-term cooperation" to any FSB officer willing to provide information to the CIA. The event has stimulated as much irony as ire. Fogle's ‘party shop’ spy kit brings to mind the ‘spy rock’ scandal of 2002 in which Britain was accused and admitted using a low-tech fake rock to host a hidden camera.

Fogle has now been declared a "persona non grata" for "provocative actions in the spirit of the Cold War" and become the first person to be ejected from Russia in a decade. The timing was particularly inopportune, as the story broke in the middle of Ambassador Michael McFaul's Twitter-based question and answer session. He did not comment as the story broke, but was called in by the Foreign Ministry the next day. The Russian authorities have consistently sought to highlight any Russophobia (read: criticism of the Kremlin) on the part of the ambassador and the scandal will have proved embarrassing. Espionage claims are particularly useful in the Kremlin’s attempts to justify the ongoing use of oppressive tactics against NGOS.

Prior to the Fogle scandal there was evidence that relations with the US had entered a somewhat more clement phase since John Kerry took the position of Secretary of State. Syria has long been a source of discord and yet upon his meeting to Moscow, Kerry and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed upon calling an international conference with the aim of ending the civil war in Syria. Lavrov expressed his approval at the ‘wholehearted effort on the American side to develop our relations in economics, political dialogue and international cooperation’. During his visit, Kerry asserted ‘significant common interests’ between Russia and the United States. Meanwhile ‘productive’ security talks were held between FBI Director Robert Mueller and Russian counterparts in Moscow.

Whilst international events have loomed large, one of the key events of the past month took place on the domestic front. The departure of Vladislav Surkov, one of the architects of the system of sovereign democracy, also known as the eminence grise of the Putin regime, has sent shock waves across the blogosphere. On May 9, it was reported that Surkov had been ousted from his post by Vladimir Putin, but at his own behest. “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.” The decline of Surkov’s 13-year-long political career has been on the lips of Russia watchers since he was removed from his position as Kremlin Chief of Staff in December 2011 and replaced by ex-KBG man Vladimir Volonin. Since then a number of changes in political technology have been noted with many suggesting that Surkov's brand of political management (through for example the creation of ‘potemkin’ political parties and propagandist mechanisms) was much more nuanced and subtle than that employed by Voronin.

There has been much speculation as to the circumstances of Surkov’s departure and the extent to which it was voluntary or not. Many Kremlin watchers, among them Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL, believe that Surkov will have left quite voluntarily, citing the confusion over the actual date of his departure as evidence of this. Suggestions as to how his leaving will affect the political model are also rife. A number of observers envisage a de-stabilisation as a result of his departure. Some have also indicated that it shows that the President is having problems retaining the technocratic elements of his regime (among them the esteemed former Finance Minster and Putin loyalist Alexei Kudrin, who quit unexpectedly in September 2011). The modernising technocrats such as Surkov and Kudrin have been referred to as the ‘managers’ within the system of managed democracy as opposed to the ‘shareholders’ (those like siloviki chief Igor Sechin, who are fully signed up to and involved in state-run enterprises). The origins of Surkov’s falling out with Putin would seem to suggest a clan war between ‘managers and shareholders’ stemming back to 2011 when he suggested that President Medvedev (also of the modernizing bent) should seek a second term as president, an idea fiercely opposed by Putin. This saw Surkov aligned with an increasingly weakened Medvedian clan which has had its power systematically eroded by Putin during his third term as President.

Fear of economic modernization seems to govern the ex-KGB siloviki clan and the departure of firstly Kudrin, and now Surkov, indicates that the modernizing trajectory off Medvedev's cabinet is being firmly quashed. This has also been witnessed in the problems currently afflicting the Skolkovo project. The Skolkovo initiative, a pet project of then President Medvedev, first unveiled in 2010, was an idea to create a hi-tech business park outside of Moscow that would be a fledgling equivalent to Silicon Valley. Surkov was its 'curator' and tycoon Viktor Vekselberg was hired as its head. In recent weeks a scandal has mounted around the project which many believe is a Putin-designed attempt to discredit the Prime Minister. On May 7, a senior vice president at the center, Alexei Beltyukov, was suspended, as he became the subject of a criminal investigation over allegedly paying opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, $750,000 for a series of lectures and research projects. Back in February, two Skolkovo executives were subject to investigations over the alleged embezzlement of $800,000. These investigations sparked a battle between Surkov and the Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin.

Surkov suggested that investigators has acted with ‘excessive zeal,’ to which Markin responded with an editorial in the Izvestia daily, in which he alleged that Skolkovo’s defenders were trying to hinder the probe by presenting it as political persecution. Surkov, who has normally shunned public appearances, also publicly defended Skolkovo during a question-and-answer session at the London School of Economics. “I believe Skolkovo is one of the cleanest projects in terms of possible graft. If some pig has spoiled our reputation that does not mean the whole cause should be multiplied by zero,” he said, according to the BBC. “In my view, it is wrong to talk about possible transgressions prior to a trial.”

The derailment of the Skolkovo project bodes ill for those who believe, Medvedev and Kudrin among them, that Russia needs to move away from a natural resource based economy and attempt diversification. In the meantime we can see Surkov’s departure as potentially heralding the advent of a much harsher, monolithic regime. Whilst Surkov employed a panoply of techniques to protect vested interests and undermine freedom and the exercising of democratic rights, they remained within a certain spectrum. Under Volonin, the hue of repression had changed, with criminal prosecutions, arrests, raids and investigations becoming the preferred MO for dealing with the opposition. Chess champion turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s tweet on the event perhaps best encapsulates the change: “Surkov leaving is more confirmation that in choice between murderers and thieves, Putin is going with the murderers. No subtlety needed now.”


 

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