By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW Dec 27 The architect of Vladimir Putin's tightly controlled political system became one of its most senior victims on Tuesday when he was shunted out of the Kremlin in the wake of the biggest opposition protests of Putin's 12-year rule.
The sacrifice of Vladislav Surkov, branded the Kremlin's 'puppet master' by enemies and friends alike, is also a rare admission of failure for Russia's 'alpha dog' leader: Surkov's system was Putin's system.
With irony worthy of Surkov's cynical novels, the Kremlin's 47-year-old political mastermind was shown grinning on state television when told by President Dmitry Medvedev that he would oversee modernisation as a deputy prime minister.
When asked why he was leaving the Kremlin, Surkov deliberately misquoted a slogan from the French Revolution, saying: "Stabilisation is eating up its children."
Almost in passing, Surkov told Interfax news agency he would not be running domestic politics after nearly 13 years doing exactly that from the corridors of the Kremlin.
Why? "I am too notorious for the brave new world."
His post will be taken by Putin's chief of staff and Surkov's arch enemy, Vyacheslav Volodin, a wealthy former lawyer who hails from Putin's ruling United Russia party. Anton Vaino, a 39-year-old former diplomat, becomes Putin's chief of staff.
By ejecting Surkov from the Kremlin just two months before the presidential election, Putin is betting that he can neutralise some of the anger against his rule by projecting the impression of a brave new world of political reform.
"What happened today is nothing more than shuffling people from one office into another," Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third richest man who demanded Surkov be sacked in September, said through a spokesman. "Little will change from these shifts."
Though Surkov's exit may not usher in a vast political change, it is the end of an era for one of Putin's most powerful aides. And at Putin's court, personalities count for everything.
Described as Russia's answer to France's Cardinal Richelieu or a modern-day Machiavelli, Surkov was one of the creators of the system Putin crafted since he rose to power in 1999.
To admirers, "Slava" Surkov is the most flamboyant mind in Putin's court: a writer of fiction who recited poets such as Allen Ginsberg but also strong enough to hold his own against the KGB spies and oligarchs in the infighting of the Kremlin.
To enemies, Surkov is a dangerous artist who used his brains to expand Putin's power and whose intellectual snobbery made Russian citizens beads in a grand political experiment called "Vladimir Putin."
Fond of black ties and sometimes unshaven, Surkov survived many turf wars but he could not survive the biggest protests of Putin's rule or Putin's need to find someone to blame for them.
As the manager of United Russia, the Kremlin's point man on elections and ultimately the day-to-day manager of Putin's political system, Surkov bore direct responsibility for the protests which have pitted Russia's urban youth against Putin.
He did not answer requests for comment.
Brought into the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin in 1999 to serve as an aide to then chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, Surkov helped ease the handover of power to Putin.
He then worked with Putin and then President Medvedev to consolidate power, repeatedly using the spectre of the chaotic 1990s to warn against swift change.
In practise, Surkov's rule meant centralising power in Putin's hands: Surkov moved regional decision-making to the Kremlin, struck down any attempt at autonomy and directed party politics.
Such was his power that Russia's top party officials, journalists and cultural leaders would visit him in the Kremlin for 'direction' on how to present events to the public.
"He is considered one of the architects of the system," Putin's former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, told Kommersant FM radio.
"Now this system is being revised. New organisers are needed with different views on the political system," said Kudrin, who has offered to lead dialogue between the opposition and the authorities.
Signs of trouble for Surkov appeared in May when Volodin -the man who eventually took his job - helped Putin create a new movement, or popular front, that would compete with the United Russia party for Putin's patronage.
Volodin, a dollar millionaire fond of ducking reporters questions with irony or personal needling, presented the popular front to Putin as a way to revive the ruling party.
Volodin's stock rose after securing 65 percent of the vote for Putin's party in Saratov, a region where he was born.
Then in September, the main scriptwriter of Russian politics became the focus of an intriguing unscripted conflict with Prokhorov - the whizz kid of Russian finance - over the fate of a minor opposition party which was crippled by the Kremlin.
"There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatised the political system and has for a long time misinformed the leadership of the country," Prokhorov, whose fortune Forbes put at $18 billion, said at the time.
"His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov," said Prokhorov, who demanded Putin sack Surkov. Putin had to personally calm down the two sides in the row, two sources said.
But after mass protests in major Russian cities against the parliamentary election and against Putin himself, Surkov's analysis differed to that of his boss.
Putin has dismissed the protesters as chattering monkeys or a motley crew of leaderless opponents bent on sowing chaos, but Surkov gave a more refined view: he said they were among the best people in Russian society.
"You cannot simply swipe away their opinions in an arrogant way," said Surkov, who will now have to move his portrait of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara from his Kremlin office.