- - Thursday, February 27, 2020

MOSCOW — Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” — a chain-smoking, secretive ideologue with a fondness for American beat poetry and rap music.

The architect of President Vladimir Putin’s system of political control, Mr. Surkov, 55, built a reputation as a master manipulator, creating fake “opposition” parties that provided Russian voters with the illusion of genuine democracy.

Mr. Surkov also founded Nashi, a notorious Putin youth movement whose members harassed foreign diplomats and opposition figures in the early years of Mr. Putin’s rule. He is believed to have written a novel, “Almost Zero,” under a pseudonym, as well as lyrics for a popular Russian rock group.

So the news that Mr. Surkov is out of a job in the most recent government shake-up is seen as more than just another Kremlin power play. After Mr. Putin surprised his aides and startled the nation by revealing plans for a series of sweeping government changes in December, Mr. Surkov’s departure is considered to be a significant clue to what Mr. Putin has in mind when he is supposed to step down after a quarter century as Russia’s dominant political force in 2024.

Critics quickly concluded that the constitutional changes Mr. Putin outlined in mid-January were designed to keep the 67-year-old onetime KGB operative in effective control indefinitely. But many saw the changes as a mixed bag, boosting the legislature’s power to approve a prime minister and to vet Cabinet members, rejiggering the qualifications and term limits for the president and giving significant new powers to the previously low-key State Council, an executive advisory body.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Mr. Putin’s longtime political wingman and briefly president of Russia before stepping aside for Mr. Putin to rule again, quickly resigned but was assigned a top post at the newly prominent State Council.

A working group appointed by Mr. Putin this week announced a national referendum on the changes on April 22.

Some see the changes — and the dismissal of the colorful Mr. Surkov — as part of a Putin plan to consolidate power while minimizing shocks to the system he has created.

“Late Putinism is about a different, safer kind of spectacle,” Mark Galeotti, a senior fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, wrote last week in The Moscow Times. “It is about ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs), Great Patriotic War cavalcades, and a more discreet kind of embezzlement for a more discreet kind of VIP.”

But most political analysts also note that the final wording of Mr. Putin’s amendments contained no significant reduction in the president’s powers. The development sparked speculation that the Kremlin may be preparing to extend the number of terms that Mr. Putin can serve.

Loathed and feared

Widely viewed as the political heir to Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union’s shadowy chief ideologue during the Cold War, Mr. Surkov was loathed and feared by the Russian opposition. He has been at times head of the Kremlin’s administration, a deputy prime minister for the economy, a media strategist and a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Putin.

Mr. Surkov “is the lord of darkness,’ Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Kremlin critic, once said. “He has been complicit in all the vileness of the Putin era.”

But his dismissal in the far-reaching political shake-up has Mr. Putin’s critics and his supporters guessing.

In a terse two-sentence decree, Mr. Putin announced this month that he was dismissing Mr. Surkov. He is not believed to have been offered another post. “A person as experienced and talented as Surkov will find employment,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.

Mr. Surkov insisted Wednesday that his departure from the Kremlin was his own decision.

“I created this [political] system, but I was never a part of it,” Mr. Surkov said in comments published by Russian media. “I am interested in working in the genre of counter-realism. That is, when and if you need to act against reality, change it, remake it.”

When asked whether he had any enemies, Mr. Surkov replied, “I hope so. I tried so hard, after all.”

In recent years, Mr. Surkov was in charge of Kremlin policy on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist forces carved out two “people’s republics” amid a conflict that has killed over 13,000 since 2014.

International investigators said in November that recordings of intercepted telephone calls could implicate Mr. Surkov in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. All 298 people on board were killed when the plane was shot down by what investigators say was a Buk missile supplied to separatists by the Russian military.

Mr. Surkov added fuel to the Russian political discussion Wednesday when he said constitutional changes would reset the clock on term limits and allow Mr. Putin to stay in office until 2036, when he will be 84.

“Legal logic will make it necessary to restart the countdown of presidential terms,” said Mr. Surkov. “The restrictions of the current presidency will not be able to apply” to Mr. Putin.

Divided electorate

While still broadly popular, Mr. Putin’s once-unassailable political mandate has been dented in recent years. Polls show a steadily softening approval rate and clear signs that Mr. Putin has worn out his welcome among parts of the electorate.

One-fourth of Russians would like Mr. Putin to remain as president beyond 2024, according to an opinion poll published by the Levada Center, an independent think tank in Moscow. A third of voters said they wanted Mr. Putin to take on another role. But 32% told pollsters that they want Mr. Putin to retire from public life altogether.

“The increase in fatigue [with Mr. Putin] among people is visible,” said Lev Gudkov, the Levada Center director.

A government commission tasked by Mr. Putin with proposing additional changes to the Constitution has come with an array of eye-catching suggestions, including changing the official job title of the Russian head of state from “president” to “supreme leader.”

The only other official “supreme leader” in Russian history was Adm. Alexander Kolchak, who led the anti-Bolshevik White Army government during the Russian civil war. He was executed by a Red Army firing squad in 1920.

The commission includes Vladimir Mashkov, an actor who played a Russian intelligence agent in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” and Yelena Isinbayeva, a former Olympic pole vaulter. Only 11 of the commission’s 75 members have legal backgrounds, but all of them are seen as Kremlin loyalists.

Ms. Isinbayeva was widely mocked when she acknowledged this month that she had never read the Russian Constitution, which she described as “a very important book.”

Other proposals by Mr. Putin’s commission include granting lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution to former presidents, a formal recognition of Russia as a “victorious power” in World War II and legally establishing Orthodox Christianity as the country’s state religion. It is unclear which of the commission’s proposals will make it into the draft constitution.

Opposition figures said the immunity provision was meant to ensure that Mr. Putin would never be tried in a Russian court of law. Mr. Putin has faced corruption allegations since the early 1990s, when he was a little-known deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, his home city.

Russians opposed to Mr. Putin’s proposed constitutional rewrite plan to rally nationwide Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the death of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic who was assassinated near Red Square.

“They will be watching in the Kremlin to see how many people turn up at the Nemtsov rally,” said Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure. “[The numbers] will decide how brazenly they carry out the operation to keep Putin in power.”

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