Kremlin ousts strategist as Putin stands ground on vote

The Kremlin on Tuesday reassigned one of the chief architects of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s governing strategy to a job far removed from domestic politics, a sign that the protests of recent weeks have started to shake the highest levels of power in Russia.

President Dmitry Medvedev named Vladislav Surkov deputy prime minister in charge of economic administration, a job that Surkov told reporters would have little to do with daily political life. Since 1999, Surkov had been deputy head of the presidential administration, a shadowy position that obscured his central policy role.

Despite his low profile, Surkov is seen as crucial to Putin’s domination of Russian politics and Putin’s trademark blend of authoritarianism and democracy. He suggested that he had been sacrificed to placate the new mood in the country, where Putin is facing the most serious challenge in his 12 years in power.

The move comes less than a week after Medvedev launched plans for reforms that would loosen the Kremlin’s chokehold on political life in Russia. Together, those developments suggest that Putin and Medvedev think they cannot ignore the protests that have drawn tens of thousands into the streets since disputed Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

If Medvedev’s proposals take effect, defying opposition groups’ skepticism, they would make it far easier to launch fully independent political parties, undoing Surkov’s strategy of fostering token opposition that poses little threat to Putin’s rule.

“Stabilization devours its own children,” Surkov told the Interfax news service in a play on a saying often associated with the French Revolution. “I was among those who helped President Yeltsin peacefully transfer power, among those who helped President Putin stabilize the political system, among those who helped President Medvedev liberalize it.”

This year, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov called Surkov the Kremlin’s chief “puppet master” as Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team, quit a pro-business party that he headed in Russia. He said he was being pressured to toe the Putin line even though the party was nominally independent, and he called for Surkov’s ouster.

On Tuesday, Putin offered his first assessment of the protest movement since a Saturday rally drew tens of thousands into the streets of Moscow. He gave little ground, perhaps preferring, for the moment, to let actions speak for themselves.

“They have neither a common program nor clear and understandable methods to reach their goals, which are also unclear,” Putin told a coordinating meeting of his Russian Popular Front movement, Interfax reported. “There are no people who could do something concrete.”

He again dismissed calls to reevaluate the results of the Dec. 4 elections. But he refrained from provocation, unlike two weeks ago, when he suggested that protesters had been paid by foreign agents. “They need to be treated with respect,” he said Tuesday.

He also rejected the idea that he might use fraud to win the presidential election in March, a concern of protesters. “All of us and I, as one of the candidates, do not need any ballot stuffing,” he said.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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