Putin Fires Chief Strategist: Battens Down the Hatches

Vladimir Putin seems to be battening down the hatches instead of showing more flexibility in the face of the massive prodemocracy protests since the rigged December 4 elections. In the latest protests in Moscow and several smaller cities on December 24, an estimated 120,000 middle class Russians braved icy weather carrying anti-corruption banners and chanting “Russia without Putin”.

On December 27, Putin fired Vladislav Surkov, his chief political strategist of 13 years and of United Russia, the party that Putin created in 2001 to carry forward his ideas after taking power in 1999. Surkov will be replaced by a person many consider as his nemesis, Putin’s chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin.

This surprising turn of events makes it look like Putin has axed the advisor he holds responsible for the December 4 debacle that saw a 25 percent drop in seats for United Russia, although it still won a majority. With 40 percent of the electorate, United Russia remains the most popular party followed by the Communist Party with about 13 percent.

But Surkov’s dismissal may turn out to be a ruse to increase Putin’s personal control over domestic politics just over two months before the next Presidential elections, which he wants to win at any cost. He has been in power for 12 years, eight as President and four as Prime Minister. He now hopes to continue for 12 more as a two-term President with Dmitry Medvedev, the current President, acting as his loyal Prime Minister.

The aftermath of the December 4 elections caused an unprecedented upheaval in Russia. Usually apolitical middle class voters and young professionals, who have benefited from Putin’s rule, turned against him alleging corruption and vote rigging. Above all, they do not want 18-24 continuous years of Putin at the helm.

Surkov is a much disliked figure who consolidated Putin’s power and moved political and economic control of the entire Russian Federation back to Moscow from the regional centers of power and the republics in the federation. But over the past two years he seems to have seen the winds of history and has backed attempts to create a bigger space for protests and criticisms of Putin’s desire to amass yet more power. This set him at loggerheads with Volodin, who has now replaced him.

Putin’s reaction to the December 24 protests are unclear as yet but earlier this month he ridiculed the protestors as “Bandar log” a colloquialism from India that broadly means “monkey people or chattering monkeys”. He may still see the protestors as leaderless idealists who will sow chaos if allowed to spread their influence. It is true that the protestors are leaderless and do not have a clear political agenda. But they are influential urban voters and could challenge Putin’s primacy if they register protest votes in favor of other contenders.

Surkov, long a Putin protégé, probably agrees with his mentor most of the way but he is on record as saying, “You cannot simply swipe away their (the protestors’) opinions in an arrogant way”. His recent flexibility may have influenced the United Russia party to be more apprehensive about voters’ opinions and may have cost him his job.

Volodin has not said anything substantive so far about the protestors or the legitimacy of their calls. Medvedev has promised investigations into the voter fraud allegations of December 4 and offered reforms as needed. It remains to be seen how far he might go to distance himself from Putin. His job as the future Prime Minister may be at risk, although he seems more capable of reforming Russia’s economy and corporate governance than Putin, who is a tough nationalist bent on competing with US power.

With United Russia dropping in the polls, Volodin created the All-Russian People’s Front last May beholden only to Putin. It secured 65 percent of the vote in the Saratov region on December 4, burnishing Volodin’s credentials as a political organizer. So far, there is little cause to believe that the new Front could challenge United Russia.

However, some analysts think that voters may see it as being more forward thinking and flexible than United Russia, which is organized somewhat like the Communist party of the Soviet era. Its creation provides a choice for those who dislike United Russia. Its winning candidates could later fold into United Russia by entering a post-electoral coalition.

Whatever the underlying machinations, there is a positive element here. For the first time in Russia’s long history, the people may get alternatives, however imperfect, in the March 2012 Presidential elections. That will be a good thing if the trend to more choices continues and is not stifled by President Putin.

Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist