Kremlin shifts top strategist after protests

27th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday gave the official who designed Russia's tightly controlled political system a new government job, in a surprise move after protests challenging the Kremlin.

Commentators said the appointment of Vladislav Surkov, until now Kremlin first deputy chief of staff, as deputy prime minister could spell the end of his decade-long work as the Kremlin's top ideologue.

"I have signed the decree on making you deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation," Medvedev told Surkov in a meeting broadcast on state television, saying he would be responsible for the project of modernising the economy.

The move is part of a major Kremlin reshuffle after the mass protests that rallied tens of thousands of people to protest against allegedly rigged parliamentary elections and a lack of democracy in Russia.

Surkov is credited with coining the phrase "sovereign democracy" to describe Russia's political system in the period after strongman Vladimir Putin came to power, which has seen an increase of federal power and an erosion of civil liberties.

"This is the end of an era," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading expert on the Russian elite, told AFP.

The Kommersant daily quoted a government source as saying that the appointment represented a "sidelining" of Surkov from domestic politics in the light of the mass protests.

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who has expressed sympathy with the cause of the protestors, said that Surkov's transfer appeared to be part of a widescale drive to freshen up Russian politics after the rallies.

"He is one of the architects of this political system. Now this system is being thoroughly reviewed and other figures are required with different opinions. They needed a new person," he told Kommersant FM radio.

Russia's leaders are under pressure to show willingness to reform, with the protest movement stepping up their calls for Prime Minister Putin not to pursue his plan to stand for a third Kremlin term in March 2012 polls.

The Kremlin announced that Vyacheslav Volodin, formerly a top official in the ruling United Russia party, would take Surkov's old job as Kremlin deputy chief of staff.

Surkov, a figure with an almost mystical profile in Russia who rarely speaks in public, sought to show satisfaction with his new job, calling it a "great honour".

"We all know that the modernisation of the economy is your strategic priority, and we talked a lot about this. This is very interesting work. Thank you for your trust," he told Medvedev.

After an aborted attempt to head a pro-business political party earlier this year, Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov lambasted Surkov as a "puppet master" and vowed to get him sacked.

Surkov first entered the Kremlin during the rule of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, in 1999 and then worked under Putin for two terms and then his successor Medvedev.

In an interview with the Interfax news agency after his new appointment, Surkov for the first time officially acknowledged the extent of his role in politics going back to the resignation of Yeltsin on New Year's Eve in 1999.

"I was one of those who helped Yeltsin realise the peaceful handover of power (to Putin)," he said.

"I was one of those who helped Putin stabilise the political system as president. And one of those who helped President Medvedev liberalise it."

In the last year Surkov became a hate figure for liberals who blamed him for leading a clampdown on dissent. But he countered that "democracy had been preserved in Russia" and strengthened by Medvedev's cautious reform.

The top-level reshuffle in Russia this month has already seen former Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin replace Boris Gryzlov as parliament speaker and former deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov become Kremlin chief of staff.

© 2011 AFP

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