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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Kremlin's Karl Rove

The Chicago Tribune reports on Vladislav Surkov, who it calls the "Kremlin's Karl Rove":

He's the Kremlin's version of Karl Rove, a cunning, behind-the-scenes strategist who could play a pivotal role in the upcoming political season that will forge Russia's post-Putin era.

Vladislav Surkov may not be a household name, but in many respects the 42-year-old Kremlin adviser has been the master craftsman behind Vladimir Putin's steady accumulation of power over the last seven years.

Surkov engineered the birth of Putin's United Russia party, as well as its eventual domination over every nook and cranny of political life in Russia. He also is widely believed to be the driving force behind pro-Kremlin youth movements manufactured to counter the kind of youth opposition that stoked the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. More recently, those youth movements have taken on a new role--to seed a new generation of political leaders devoted to Putin's agenda.

Now Surkov faces the daunting role of adman for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections in December and, more important, a presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin wants to engineer a presidential succession that best ensures a continuation of Putin-inspired governance. Russia's Constitution bars Putin from seeking a third term as president. Ostensibly, Russia will elect a new president, but it's widely expected that Putin will handpick a successor who will go into the election with full support from the government and the country's state-controlled television networks.

So far the leading candidates for the job are Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defense minister and, like Putin, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's former chief of staff and now a deputy prime minister and board chairman of Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Whomever Putin selects, he already has said he will continue to wield influence over Russia in some capacity after the election.

In his annual televised Q&A with Russians last October, Putin cryptically declared that, even after he leaves office, he would "retain the most important asset that a person involved in politics should cherish--your trust. And by using that, together we will be able to . . . exert influence on what happens in Russia."

Putin has never elaborated on what he meant, but given his czarlike approach to running the country and popularity ratings that top 70 percent, the declaration is hardly an idle one. Russian commentators have speculated he could become prime minister in a government where presidential power is drastically weakened, or could become head of the dominant United Russia party.

Whatever scenario the Kremlin chooses, Surkov is likely to be tapped to help ensure its smooth execution. Surkov is regarded by many political observers as Russia's second most powerful person behind Putin. On a daily basis, he stewards Kremlin legislative proposals through parliament, but he also is Putin's chief ideologue and political adviser. His oversight of the creation of United Russia led to that party's takeover of Russia's lower chamber of parliament in the 2003 elections. United Russia is expected to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Analysts also say Surkov was instrumental in the formation of the Rodina party, a nationalist party the Kremlin created solely to take away votes from the Communist Party, United Russia's chief competition in 2003.

Surkov has given a name to governance under Putin's Kremlin, calling it a "sovereign democracy," a label he says stresses Russia's desire to not "be managed from the outside" but one critics in the West say is a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Surkov's prominence within Kremlin circles is particularly surprising given his background. Unlike Putin and other top advisers in the president's entourage, Surkov is not a former KGB agent. He's a college dropout who spent 10 years working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil magnate jailed for what many in the West believe was his political opposition to the Kremlin. Surkov became a Kremlin adviser under President Boris Yeltsin in early 1999 and survived the personnel shuffle when Putin took over.

Now Surkov finds himself as the Kremlin's top political adviser as Russia braces for new leadership, a crucial moment in the country's post-Soviet history. Having survived the tumultuous last year of the Yeltsin presidency, Surkov now must help ensure that the transition into the post-Putin era goes according to script.

Though Putin has Russian politics under his thumb, the Kremlin has become highly factionalized during his presidency. Putin's push to regain control of Russia's natural resources assets has widened those fissures, as top officials scrum for a piece of the pie.

Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet-era politics as "the bulldog fight under the carpet." With a crucial political season looming, Surkov and the rest of the Kremlin are likely to find Churchill's description equally relevant today.

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