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Surkov: grey cardinal who built Putin’s political system

Vladislav Surkov, who left the government in a stunning move Wednesday, was once described as the Russia’s third most powerful man after President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

As first deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Surkov was credited with designing a political system that has seen Putin dominate Russia for over a decade, transforming the parliament into a rubber stamp.

The secretive, media-shy strategist oversaw political parties in parliament and electoral campaigns that invariably handed victory to Putin’s regime.

He spearheaded the campaign for December 2011 parliamentary polls which the opposition says were marred by record violations and brought tens of thousands on to the streets in the biggest show of public anger since the early 1990s.

But he saw his influence significantly wane after he was moved to the government in a reshuffle after the first unprecedented anti-Putin protests in 2011.

At his new post he oversaw the modernisation of Russia’s energy-dependent economy in the rank of deputy prime minister.

Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said Surkov had tendered his resignation on April 26.

Observers said Surkov’s departure highlighted increasing infighting between Putin’s Kremlin and Medvedev’s government as the economy is slowing down and civil society is wrestling with an unprecedented crackdown.

Some went as far as to suggest that Putin’s system had essentially begun disintegrating.

“The system is beginning to dismantle itself,” prominent political commentator Marat Guelman said on Echo of Moscow radio.

Surkov quit after a highly unusual public spat with the spokesman of the hugely powerful Investigative Committee which is probing the Skolkovo high-tech fund that he backs.

“Surkov was one of the main ministers in the Medvedev cabinet,” wrote political analyst Alexei Makarkin, noting that the entire cabinet might be later shown the door.

Pro-opposition analyst Dmitry Oreshkin described his departure as a result of a “fight among bulldogs under a carpet.”

“Surkov tried to counter an attack by the Investigative Committee on Skolkovo and was eaten alive. Now we’re seeing his bones,” he said on Echo of Moscow radio.

Born in the central Russian village of Solntsevo to a Chechen father and a Russian mother, Surkov’s rise to power was meteoric.

The 48-year-old kickstarted his career in the early 1990s 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.

A figure of hate among liberals, Surkov is credited with coining the term “sovereign democracy” to describe Russia’s political system. He once said Putin was sent to Russia by God and likened political reform to “dangerous leap-frogging.”

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 have harassed Western diplomats and the opposition.

For the observers who praised and criticised him — often in the same breath — Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief “political designer,” a Machiavellian schemer and a chameleon.

People who know Surkov closely describe him as a bookish cynic with a creative approach to politics.

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.”

Known for his sophisticated literary tastes, Surkov also dabbled in song-writing and penned lyrics for Russian gothic rock band Agatha Christie.

After the announcement of his departure, Surkov told Russian Pioneer magazine for which he has written several columns that he planned to write a comedy.

“The plot of a political comedy based on real events is about to ripen,” he said.