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
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
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
"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
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