Surkov: shy architect of Russia's political system
After Vladimir Putin announced in September he would seek to return to the Kremlin in 2012's presidential elections, a shy figure appeared on a panel discussion on a state television to defend the move.
One by one, as the man sat silently with an enigmatic smile, the other panelists praised Putin's return to the presidency.
But when Vladislav Surkov finally spoke, the audience clung to his every word.
For Surkov, first deputy head of the Kremlin administration, is the man credited with designing the political system that has seen Putin dominate Russia for over a decade, transforming parliament into a rubber stamp.
Described as Russia's most powerful backroom dealmaker, who once said Putin was sent to Russia by God, he had barely ever spoken in public.
Russians, he said, would be ill-advised to expect any major political changes, something he likened to "dangerous leap-frogging."
"It is wrong to every year introduce changes to the fundamental laws concerning the political system," he said.
Surkov is often described as the country's most powerful man after Putin and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev.
It is his job to ensure that the ruling United Russia party wins Sunday's parliamentary elections with a resounding majority to consolidate the "power vertical" with which Putin grips Russia.
For the observers who praise and criticise him -- often in the same breath -- Surkov is the Kremlin's chief "political designer," a Machiavellian schemer and a chameleon.
Born in the central Russian village of Solntsevo to a Chechen father and a Russian mother, his rise to power has been meteoric.
The 47-year-old kick-started his career in the early 90s working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time owner of Yukos oil firm, now Russia's most high-profile prisoner. He entered the Kremlin during the rule of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, in 1999.
Since then his career has grown from strength to strength, overseeing political parties and electoral campaigns that invariably handed victory to the Kremlin.
In a sign of his importance he stayed put even when Putin moved to the office of prime minister and Medvedev became president in 2008. And observers expect Surkov to stay in the Kremlin once Putin reclaims his old job in March presidential elections.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former presidential adviser who worked with Surkov between 1999 until he fell out of Kremlin favour earlier this year, said Surkov has the ear of both Putin and Medvedev.
"He's in constant touch with both of them," Pavlovsky told AFP. "He's indispensable for the authorities," he said.
"They will have to do an almost complete reformatting of Russia's political concept. I do not rule out that he will see a renaissance."
A figure of hate among liberals, he is dismissed by critics as a master of self-fulfilling prophecies.
"First, he was telling the leaders about the threat of the Orange Revolution, then about enemies from abroad. Now's he telling them about the Arab Spring," said political commentator Yulia Latynina, who writes for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
To counter the threat of so-called "colour revolutions" which brought to power pro-Western regimes in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia, Surkov masterminded the creation of pro-Kremlin youth groups which routinely harrass Western diplomats and the opposition.
When billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in September resigned from the post of Kremlin-linked party Pravoye Delo (Right Cause), a rare scandal in the ordered world of Russian politics, he accused Surkov of engineering his downfall and stifling debate.
Surkov, he said, was a "puppeeter who has long ago privatised the political system, puts pressure on the media and misinforms the country's leadership."
A novella published in 2009, "Close to Zero", is widely believed to have been written by Surkov.
He has never publicly acknowledged being the author, but it is written under the pen name Natan Dubovitsky, similar to the name of his second wife, Natalia Dubovitskaya.
The novel's hero, publisher Yegor Samokhodov, says that politics is no more malicious than life itself, "a family, a monastery, a brigade of asphalters, a ministry and parliament."
"The author endlessly resembles Surkov," said Pavlovsky.
Widely known for his sophisticated literary tastes, Surkov also dabbled in song-writing and penned lyrics for Russian gothic rock band Agatha Christie.
© 2011 AFP