Translation: Was Surkov Fired for Bolotnaya Sympathies?

Based on multiple interviews with high-placed sources, Vedomosti’s Lilia Biryukova, Maxim Glikin, and Maxim Tovkailo compile four major theories to explain Surkov’s resignation last Wednesday: Was it a simple matter of under-performance, or are there deeper currents to the story?

Surkov May have been Fired for his Bolotnaya Sympathies

On Wednesday, President Putin acceded to the resignation request of Deputy Prime Minister and Chief of Kremlin Staff Vladimir Surkov. His functions as Vice-Premier will temporarily be fulfilled by another Deputy Prime Minister, Arkady Dvorkovich, while the current Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Prikhodko will for the time being replace him as Chief of Kremlin Staff.

The President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov sid that the resignation followed on from the results of a progress meeting on the implementation of the President’s decrees. Surkov himself said that he drafted his resignation letter back on 26 April, which was confirmed by the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman Natalia Timakova.

It was not the first time that Surkov has lodged a resignation request, according to a member of his entourage. The first time it happened was last December and, of course, had no relation to the decrees; it is just that now Putin has decided it is time to lay him off.

Excess Formalism

According to Peskov’s version, which was echoed by United Russia, Surkov was fired for improper execution of the May decrees of the President, since he was responsible for coordinating this work in government. A colleague of Surkov’s, Minister of Regional Development Oleg Govorun, had been reprimanded and then fired for the same reasons last year.

The 11 decrees from 7 May 2012 contained 218 assignments, of which 133 were to be fulfilled by 7 May 2013. The government kept the deadline. But the President criticized him for excessive formalism: Not only the deadlines are important, but also the quality of their execution.

“As regards formal discipline, the Government works almost quite flawlessly,” Surkov said quietly, emphasizing Russia’s successes on the Doing Business ratings. “Good. Thanks,” Putin replied.

The Kremlin believe that Surkov responded too boldly, even though his failings were obvious, reports a source close to the Administration: Both the domestic political, and the legal, departments are very dissatisfied with the quality of many of the bills advanced to fulfill the decrees.

Among other things, there is dissatisfaction over the bill developed by the Federal Migration Service in the fight against the “rubber apartments” in which illegals live, according to a Vedomosti source. They approached the task formally, simply increasing the existing penalties, with the result that normal Russians started getting threatened with enormous fines just for living somewhere other than where they were registered.

The assignments and decrees were impractical from the get go, objects a person close to Surkov; he left with dignity, not allowing himself to be made a whipping boy.

Surkov is also blamed for an inability to find a common language with senior officials of the government apparatus, many of whom were responsible for the implementation of Putin’s decrees, continues the Kremlin bureaucrat. The government apparatus was deserted by the Director of the Department for Information Technologies Alexey Popov (supervised the e-government project), Deputy Head of the apparatus Vasily Kopylov (responsible for preparing meetings of the government, appointed Deputy Minister of Regional Development on 7 May), Deputy Head of the apparatus Anna Popova (supervised legislative work). Likewise Surkov’s First Deputy Alexandra Levitskaya went on a long vacation with the intent of resigning, but she may now change her plans following her chief’s resignation, continued the federal bureaucrat.

According to Surkov’s colleague, the difficile Chief of Kremlin Staff did not have good relations with the other Deputy Prime Ministers, while conflicts with the siloviks also pushed him towards resignation.

Problems with Skolkovo

Surkov’s first rocky shoal was Skolkovo – the government’s quiet introduction of a draft law on the widening of tax and other benefits for the Skolkovo Foundation, says the federal official. President Putin vetoed it – which he rarely does – in December, on the day of its announcement.

Charged with supervising the Skolkovo project, one of the main causes of Surkov’s resignation was dissatisfaction with the way he handled it, according to sources in the government. At the beginning of the year, the Audit Chamber prepared a report on violations in the Skolkovo Foundation’s work. The complaints were mainly related to the fact that part of the budget was used to fund the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But one bureaucrat, who helps oversee Skolkovo, pointed out that MIT is a project partner, aiding Skolkovo’s development while risking its own reputation.

In mid-April, the Investigative Committee of Russia (ICR) filed criminal charges against the senior Vice-President of the Skolkovo Foundation Alexey Beltyukov on account of embezzlement. On 1 May, speaking at the London School of Economics, Surkov criticized the ICR for excessive enthusiasm in its claims of theft at Skolkovo. Replying in an article for Izvestia, the ICR spokesman Vladimir Markin asked how long a Cabinet member of Her Majesty’s Government could hope to retain his position if he, on a private visit to Moscow, were to publicly slam Scotland Yard. Surkov replied that he didn’t comment on graphomania.

The London speech may have become the last straw, according to several sources in the Kremlin and the government, but the skirmish itself didn’t affect anything by then.
The Bolotnaya Trail

The main episode in the Skolkovo affair was the $750,000 paid to Ilya Ponomarev, an active participant in the protests, to give lectures. The investigators believe those sums constitute evidence of embezzlement. This episode even received a mention from Putin during his Direct Line with the nation.

In the Kremlin, according to a source close to the Administration, people are convinced that the help given to Ponomarev was neither a coincidence, nor the only case of Surkov giving support to the opposition.

“It is for him that the case is being created,” confirms the ex-head of the Youth Agency Vasily Yakimenko, the only former colleague of Surkov’s who agreed to give comments under his own name. According to him, there are two pieces of evidence for this: The help given to Ponomarev, and his claim that it was the “best people” who turned up at Bolotnaya {Translator: Named for a central Moscow Square that held many of the protests (lit. “swampy”), it has since become an eponymous with the non-systemic opposition}. “But in that same interview he talked of provocateurs, who are trying to inveigle themselves into leadership of the protesters, and of attempts to create an Orange Revolution. And he offered the “best people” dialog and political reforms, and as for the provocateurs – accountability before the law,” Yakimenko stresses.

He reminds us that in the winter of 2012, when Ponomarev was receiving money from Skolkovo, the Kremlin’s political supervisor Vyacheslav Volodin  was smiling and talking with Sergey Udaltsov under the camera {Translator: I suspect he’s referring to this}: “Does this mean that Volodin, at least at a moral level, supported Udaltsov, who was preparing mass disorder? Of course not. At least, I hope not.” Yakimenko points out that the agreement with Ponomarev had been signed in 2009, when the deputy was an adviser to the Minister of Communications Leonid Reiman and a member of the systemic party Fair Russia. “Knowing Surkov, I can say that such trifles like agreements, contracts, salaries, certificates of acceptance – they don’t much register on him,” Yakimenko concludes.

The Rout of the Successor’s Party

One of Surkov’s former colleagues theorizes that a high level of protest activity would maintain Dmitry Medvedev’s status as a symbol of an alternative, modernizing course – which is why people in the Kremlin consider that the Prime Minister is, at the very least, interested in a continuation of Bolotnaya.

According to another one of our interlocutors from among Surkov’s entourage, one of the most accurate descriptions of the process could be found at the blog of Valery Fedorov, the General Director of the VCIOM state polling agency who had once been close to Surkov: “We are seeing the rout of the “party of the successor.” The ruler is simultaneously both interested in an heir, and fears him, for he always presents an alternative. Now it is the “party of the former heir.” Finishing it off is a matter of honor for the supreme ruler’s band.”

“The period of relative government autonomy is coming to an end. Putin is taking manual control of the government,” he concludes.

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