A Drama in Four Acts. With commentary by Vladislav Surkov.
“Hey, poemless. Can you believe he had the balls to fire me like that?!!”
“Well, I mean, we are talking about Vladimir Putin …”
“You mentioned you had a position open. Talk to me. This modernisation gig is going to bore the living fuck out of me.”
“Yes, the position of love slave remains unfilled. Actually, there are many positions, but we can discuss them in detail later.”
Hey wasn’t this supposed to be a blog about Russia?!
Eh, well I got depressed and then dated this psychotic Russian cab driver and then got depressed again. Then someone got on my facebook and was all like, “Please post more interesting stuff re: the evolving dynamic in Russia.” And then my therapist was handwringing and probing about my not writing, which stresses me out even more, which is pretty fucking convenient for him, right? And then Putin went and fired the sexy Chechen.
And that, my dear friends, is where my writer’s block, or rather, writer’s too depressed to give a shit, draws the line!
What follows is neither propaganda (unless I get a check from Slava, which I could totally use, and I’m willing to change my blog name to “SurkovskayaPropaganda” for one) nor much insight re: the evolving dynamic in Russia. You know, those protests and such. No, I have no idea what it all means. But that won’t stop me from pontificating! And I hope to be marginally more effective than Surkov. Oh, it’s too tragic…
N.B. If you’re some hipster who has recently joined my audience and are wondering what the hell I am talking about: Vladislav Surkov. (Former as of yesterday) Presidential Advisor and so-called chief ideologue/propagandist/ Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin. Also the ruling party’s campaign guy. Also a goth band lyricist, Tupac fan, novelist, drama school dropout and sexiest man alive – except his hands are kinda like Mr. Burns’. Someone recently accused a Russian TV station of being “surkovskaya propaganda,” and it became an Internet meme. Whatever that is. Ask the kids. Anyway. Brilliant flipping hipster politico who just got a mad demotion is what the hell I am talking about.
If you’re some hipster who has recently joined my audience, here is the Cliff’s Notes your dog will understand version of what’s going down. If you are one of those pissy Russia watcher types, well Christ, thanks for sticking around my blog! Seriously!!! I’m like the prodigal freaking son around here…
The Stage is Set
Russia held some legislative elections. Because it’s a democratic country like that. Russia has sep., direct elections for President, unlike the US (electoral college) or some European countries where the majority party in the parliament gets the Executive branch de facto. The elections were as free as can be expected in any Western democracy. Which is to say, if you could gather enough support you could get on the ballot, and if you could get off your ass you could vote, except in those annoying instances when you couldn’t. Fair? There have been countless reports of mischief: ballot stuffing, votes disappearing, people voting numerous times, and pressure to cast one’s vote for a certain party (which is rather subjective and ultimately not the same as election rigging. Democracy requires balls, folks.) Observations of vote-rigging were concentrated in Moscow, where the liberal (free-market) opposition is strongest, and the Caucasus, where, at least in Chechnya, they’ve basically made a Faustian deal with Moscow in which they can have their own little kingdom in exchange for giving the Russian government no problems. That includes turning out the vote. GOTV! Any of this sound familiar to all y’all in Chicago? Yeah, so like that. How much fraud? Depends whom you ask. I’m in the, “Oh, I have no idea, so like 7%ish” camp.
I don’t know why, but the Russian people actually voted with some expectation that the election would be fair. That their vote would count. Specifically, their vote against the ruling party. From my woefully under informed but magnificently intelligent perspective, I’d say that this issue of expectations does in fact mark a true paradigm shift in Russian politics. (<–Pay attention, that is important.) This shift has occurred particularly among the younger, urban generation, who experienced firsthand neither the farce of elections under Soviet Rule, nor the chaos and suffering brought by the social upheavals of the 1990′s, nor the political malaise and cynicism brought on by the ideological pissing match that defined late 20th century geopolitics. They’ve known “stability” most of their lives, and now they want more. Idealism is back. And the kids think it’s cool. Celebrate. Or read Russian history. Your choice.
Slava Surkov provides commentary on the elections:
(You’re going to have to wait for Act II.)
After the ballots are counted, even when we presume the results are rigged, United Russia, the ruling party (which Putin himself won’t even be a card-carrying member of) does incredibly poorly! Their showing is still better than everyone else’s, overall, but quite short of their own modest goals. In previous elections, conventional wisdom has held that while machinations (i.e. “managed democracy”) were used to ensure an overwhelming majority, had elections been perfectly fair (a concept I’ve yet to see defined, btw), the ruling party would still have won a safe majority. Here we have a situation where the party has not only failed to win a fair fight, but has failed to win by cheating. They are guilty of both unpopularity and incompetence. (N.B. Conventional wisdom also dictates that support for the party is not synonymous with support for Putin, whose popularity remains marginally stronger than that of the party of Crooks and Thieves, as United Russia has been dubbed, and a characterization which Putin has in the past not exactly argued with.) Meanwhile the Commies and Just Russia (who are either social democrats or Kremlin stooges, depending on your preferred conspiracy theory, though it is theoretically possible to be both) did nicely. So did the wackadoodle nationalists. Free-market ideologues didn’t make the cut. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that had the elections been squeaky clean that pro-business liberals would have garnered enough votes to have any impact on policy making. In sum, the election results, whether you look at the official tally or the exit polls, do not, in fact, suggest a widespread desire for radical change, or a Russian Spring, if you will. Just for more checks and balances and accountability. As one protest slogan goes, “I didn’t vote for those bastards. I voted for the other bastards.”
Slava Surkov provides commentary on the elections:
”The system is working,” Mr. Surkov told Sergei Minayev.
“United Russia has maintained its dominance with much more modest popularity figures,” he noted. “Attempts to shake up the situation and interpret it in a negative and provocative key are doomed,” he said. “Everything is under control.”
United Russia’s commanding majority in the last parliament – which will be replaced by just over half the seats in the new one – was “abnormal,” Mr. Surkov said. United Russia got 49.7% of the vote Sunday, down from 65% in the last elections in 2007.
“For a party that turned out to be in power during a deep global economic crisis, this is a good result,” he said. “Add to that the painful but necessary reforms of the (Interior Ministry) and army, plus the forced increase in taxes on business needed to preserve social benefits, then one can say this is a very good result.”
“And if we don’t forget about how much (President Dmitry) Medvedev and United Russia did to develop democracy and political competition….opportunities for manipulation were decisively cut off – I repeat, this is an outstanding result,” he said.
Monday, Western election observers condemned the election as not fair or free and rife with manipulations. Mr. Surkov dismissed allegations as “disrespectful” of the voters. “Violations happen but they don’t have any impact on the results because there simply aren’t many of them.”
Mr. Surkov said two things are still missing in the Russian political system.
First, “a mass liberal party, or more precisely, a party for the annoyed urban communities.” He said those voters are already incorporated into the system, though they may not want to admit it – “through opposition media that belong, strange as it may seem, to the state or structures affiliated with it, the staffs or audiences of which they are a part.”
“That’s of course not enough…they should be given parliamentary representation,” he said.
Second, he said, “Among Russian politicians, there aren’t enough people who respect the second law of thermodynamics….In vulgar terms, it says that in closed systems, disorder grows,” he said.
“The (power) vertical responds to breakdowns even more vertically, simply, more primitively. That’s a mistaken method. It leads to a more closed system and thus to more chaos.”
“As a result, for the system to preserve itself and develop, it needs to be opened up. New players need to be allowed in,” he said.
“We can’t allow ourselves to wind up in the situation of ‘solus rex’ – the lonely king,” he said.
“The period of cleaning up and nursing the damaged political system of the 90s is over,” he said. “So the modernization of the political system started in recent years by Medvedev and Putin should be continued.”
Thousands of Russians take to the streets in mass protests. A most peculiar development, if one compares the level of dissatisfaction with the results with the fact that the ruling party arguably has lost their monopoly on the system. Why are people protesting so?
Well, for one, it’s fun. Unlike the coups in the Middle East or the riots in Europe, these are impressively peaceful and free demonstrations. Hipsters, overpriveledged types, scary fringe nationalists, youths – a good cross section of society. Have you ever gone to a demonstration? Good times. Rightly or not, they give one a feeling of empowerment and ignite a little flame in one’s gut, feeding a belief that dialogue between leaders and proles is truly possible. You get on tv and the authorities get scared. It’s a real egotrip! And how cathartic to go into a public square and just fucking vent. If you did it alone, people would call you a lunatic. But when you do it with hundreds and thousands of others, suddenly the media wants to know what you have to say. Suddenly you matter. Suddenly they can’t ignore you anymore. I quite like a good protest. It’s the most enjoyable part of democracy. It also requires the least amount of effort, sacrifice and responsibility, after voting. And when else can hipsters revel in the validation of thousands of others agreeing with them without losing their cred? I’ve never understood why more people don’t do it, frankly.
On a more serious note, Russians who are protesting are protesting an electoral process which they have deemed to be unfair. There are numerous accusations and observations of fraud and various demands of the protesters, ranging from the sensible (like investigations) to the barking mad (like eliminating the ballot threshold.) Some Americans have asked if the protests in Russia are similar to the OWS protests. Yes and no. Yes, in that people feel that those in power have rigged the system for their personal gain, and in that it’s incredibly adhoc and disorganized as a “movement.” So in the most basic way, yes. No, in that many, many of the protesters are pro-privatization and free-market liberals, and in that it’s more about the political system than the economic system. In the most significant way, no. Some have asked if they are like the Arab Spring. I don’t think so. I also don’t underestimate mob mentality, that it would benefit some unsavory but powerful types, or have any indication that this is what the protesters desire. Time stamped 2:13 pm, December 28, 2012.
Slava Surkov provides commentary on the protests:
The system has already changed. This is a fait accompli. Look at the results of the elections to the Duma, the protest on Bolotnaya, the discussion on the internet, Putin’s public forum on the 15th, the president’s address.. all that remains is to formalize these changes judicially (implementing a law on the direct elections of governors and about simplifying the registration of parties) and technically (supplying polling stations with web cameras, electronic voting machines, etc.)
I think that with a few of these decisions some influential people will try to slow the process, but they won’t stop it altogether. The fundamental structures of society have shifted, the social fabric has acquired a new character. We’re already in the future. And this future is restless. But one shouldn’t be scared. The turbulence, although strong, nonetheless is not catastrophic but a form of stability. Everything will be fine.
There are those who want to concert the protest into a colored revolution – this is correct. They are acting literally according to Sharpe’s books* and the newest revolutionary methods. So literally, in fact, that it’s already boring. I’d like to advise these people that they should deviate just a little from these instructions, to dream a little bit.
But these swindlers** don’t have anything to do with it. The fact is that the protests are completely real and natural. The best part of our society, or, rather, the most productive part demands respect.
People are saying that we exist, we have meaning, we are the people. One cannot arrogantly dismiss their opinions. And it is correct that these opinions are taken into account, that the authorities have had a benevolent reaction. It proposed that direct elections of governors will resume, and that party registration will be practically untrammeled…to yield to the reasonable remands of the active part of society – this is not a reluctant maneuver on the part of the authorities, it is their obligation and constitutional duty.
Of course it is possible to say that those who have gone out on the streets are only a minority. If this is the case, what a minority! And if you examine the ruling majority – in reality this is also a minority, only a somewhat larger. Our current democracy in the conditions of a complicated and fragmented society – this is in general a democracy of minorities. If you think strategically, listening to the minorities you will find among them tomorrows leaders.
And, of course, a crowd can advance unreasonable demands and can sometimes be lead by provocateurs. But as concerns the provocateurs – there is the law, there is the obligation of the state to defend the bases of the constitutional order.
And there then arises a question: what are we defending? Who wants to wants to preserve corruption and injustice? Who wants to defend a system that has become deaf, dumb, and blind? No one! Even those, who appear part of this system don’t want to. Because they don’t feel justified.
The moral standing, which the state possessed until recently, must be, even if only partially, returned. And all those plans, proposed by the president, in this vein are correct. Political institutions that are modern, open, honest, intelligible to people, that will fight for them, preserve them, and defend them.
The most important thing now is to realize all of these intentions. And it may be that at the next meeting there will be fewer people, that the chatter over the internet will cool down, and that it will seem to someone that nothing needs to be done, that everyone got worked up over nothing. That, once again, everything magically disappeared. And once again they will drag out, slow down, and set aside reforms until a better time, as has already happened, or simply dilute them. But we’ll hope for the best – God willing, the streets will calm down and the reforms will take place.
* Gene Sharp is the author of, among other books, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”
** Surkov here (deliberately) uses the exact same word that Navalny used in describing United Russia
“As a professional political operative who just took a blow at his own ‘managed’ polls, and as someone who started out with Khodorkovsky and became the Kremlin’s right hand man, it’s neither surprising nor entirely stupid that he’s showing more flexibility here.” (<–What I said right before he was axed.)
Putin axed Surkov, widely seen to be the “architect” of his political system. Or reassigned him. Normally this type of rearranging the furniture is looked upon with boredom and, except by the most eggheaded Kremlinologists, as a real bone toss. But this is no “I think that chair would look better by the window” rearranging. Putin put the fucking oven in the spare bathroom. Only history will tell if it was a genius or insane move. My immediate reactions:
~ Oh, Merry fucking Christmas to Michael McFaul.
~ Many articles have described Surkov’s move from Presidential Advisor to deputy Prime Minister overseeing Modernization (wtf?) as “leaving politics and entering government.” Leaving politics to enter government. In what universe is Russia actually located anyway? That doesn’t even make sense. I mean, not in the universe I inhabit. Is this a quantum physics thing? Though, if anyone could manage, ahem, that kind of maneuvering, Surkov could. Hell, it sounds like just the kind of thing he’d say, doesn’t it. Snake. Hot snake.
~ Look, I am really only shocked it did not happen sooner. I expected that shoe to drop the day after the elections. Not because of the protests. No. Putin’s not scared of the hipsters. Because the ruling party flopped and the current system is being vocally questioned. As its “architect,” Surkov has to answer for that. Putin’s never made sentimental decisions, and Surkov knows damn well politics is business. That said, Putin also values loyalty, and the move to Vice Deputy PM of Modernization or whatever the fuck he’ll being doing leaves a door open for recognizing Surkov’s loyalty should he prove it and should it not be political suicide for Putin to do so. (<– Saying shit like that earned me the blogger cred I squandered this year.)
~ Surkov never should have made that "Solus Rex" remark. You don't want to get on your boss's bad side. Especially if your boss is Vladimir Putin. And you just lost some elections.
~ Vova's done a lot of fearless stunts, but this is his most impressive to date. You don't want to get on the devil's bad side. Especially if he's your strategy man. And thousands are protesting outside your office.
~ Wait, I am soooo confused. Medvedev is still President for the moment, technically, and Putin is still technically PM, and Slava's been moved to Putin's sphere, oh, I give up…
~ I guess this frees him up to be my love slave.
Slava Surkov provides commentary on his demotion:
Asked by a journalist from Interfax on Tuesday why he was leaving, Mr. Surkov first answered, “Stabilization devours its own children.”
Then he laughed, and said he had overstayed the job and had requested a reassignment. Asked whether he would take a role in settling down the protests, Mr. Surkov said no.
“I am too odious for this brave new world,” he said. He then summed up his achievements at the reporter’s request.
“I was among the people who helped President Yeltsin realize a peaceful transfer of power,” he said. “I was among those who helped President Putin stabilize the political system. I was among those who helped President Medvedev liberalize it.” He added, “I hope I did not undermine my employers and my colleagues.”
Many are calling this an end of the Power Vertical (unfortunately I believe they are referring to the Kremlin’s strategy and not the wretched website.) It saddens me. One day people will wake up and realize they are all bastards, and if one must have bastards, bastards with intelligence, actual knowledge of and interest in political science and a healthy dose of sass and courage are the kinds of bastards you want. The truth is all democracies are managed. The hipsters just want their turn at managing it. Fair enough. Seriously, just do not even pick up that Russian history book! Pretend it doesn’t exist! … No, to be honest, it’s one thing I do truly love and admire about Russia. It is a politically fearless and resilient country. And there is no stopping today’s sons from becoming tomorrow’s fathers.
MOSCOW Dec 27 (Reuters) – 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.
All you lousy journalists can write your silly Surkov hagiographies. I was doing that years ago, before it was even cool!
Maybe I should join that hipster revolution.