Andrew Monaghan
Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

The government departure on 8 May of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, a long-term member of the Russian leadership team, came as a surprise to everyone. 

There is considerable speculation in Russia about the reasons for his departure. Some point to a public dispute between Surkov and the Investigative Committee in early May, suggesting that he was forced out by law enforcement agencies. This, some, particularly those in opposition circles argue, is another victory of hardliners against liberals. Others point to a meeting on 7 May, in which President Putin criticized the government for its failure to implement satisfactorily presidential instructions given one year ago. This version, endorsed by Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov, suggests that, as head of the government apparatus and given his position as co-chair of the government commission on the implementation of these orders, Surkov had to resign.

Both versions illustrate a wider situation in Russia, one in which Putin’s leadership team, having won the election in 2012, is attempting to reinvigorate its authority and campaign to address a range of long-standing problems.

Restoring order

An anti-corruption campaign is being actively pursued, not just against opposition figures such as Alexei Navalniy, but also against state companies and projects. The tone of the investigators – as illustrated by the pronouncements of Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin – is confident, even brusque, and the campaign has even affected senior members of the leadership team. In November last year, Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov was fired amidst a corruption scandal. 

The second campaign is to improve the implementation of executive orders. Putin’s admonitions of the government on 7 May were only the latest in a long series. In September 2012, Oleg Govorun, who had previously worked with Surkov in the presidential administration, was fired from his position as minister for regional development following a similar critique. Commentators in Vedomosti newspaper have noted the significant increase in demands from Putin and Medvedev: no less than 100% implementation of instructions is required. This is a mobilization pace, they argue.

Concerns inside the Kremlin

This context may partly explain Surkov's departure: he appears to disagree with the leadership regarding the vigour with which both these flagship campaigns are being conducted. On one hand, he has criticized the excessive ardor of the Investigative Committee’s pursuit of an embezzlement case involving the Skolkovo high-tech innovation centre. And on the other hand, during meetings with Medvedev and Putin on 29 April and 7 May, he asserted that the government’s activity was quite satisfactory, and that orders were being implemented according to schedule – despite it being a 'very difficult' agenda.

More broadly, therefore, Surkov's departure illustrates an increasing turnover in senior officials: his departure is the third from the cabinet in seven months. This is unusual: firings at such a senior level are comparatively rare in Russia; and Putin is known to not be in favour of firing people. Yet it may be that more departures are to come, including team members.

With Surkov's departure comes the second structural change to the government in a year. His job is being broken up and redistributed, with his role as head of the government apparatus becoming separated from policy portfolios., since officials suggest that the new head will be responsible only for organizational matters. Sergei Prikhodko, a long-term presidential aide, moved last year to the position of first deputy head of the government administration, is currently acting head until an appointment is confirmed.

Surkov's policy portfolios are being divided between remaining deputy prime ministers. Olga Golodets, deputy prime minister for social affairs, takes his responsibilities for culture and religion. Dmitri Rogozin is taking personal charge of the GLONASS space programme, adding it to his responsibilities for the defence industries and space portfolio. And the innovation portfolio goes to Arkadii Dvorkovich, deputy prime minister for energy, environment and industry. All three already have heavy, competitive – and difficult – work loads, and it remains to be seen if this structural re-organization will be more effective in delivering the president's instructions.

Surkov has given no substantive indication of his own intentions. He has suggested that he plans to write a novel, and hinted of returning to big business where he had success in the past. Others speculate that he might be appointed to lead Skolkovo, as someone who could give it the impulse it needs for further development.

Currently, official sources cited in Russian media suggest that there are no plans to give Surkov another government post. And although he is experienced and competent, it is difficult to see where he might now fit. Vyachelsav Volodin runs domestic politics, formerly Surkov's domain, and Sergei Ivanov runs the presidential administration. If Surkov disagrees with the leadership's approach, therefore, it also may be that the leadership is moving on from him and he is no longer useful to them: both Putin and Medvedev accepted his resignation. And so, like Egor at the end of Okolonolia, a novel attributed to Surkov, the government goes on as if he was not there, paying him no attention.