Writing in the Moscow Times yesterday, Georgy Bovt looks at changes in Kremlin policy that have been coming into force, not since Vladislav Surkov resigned his post of Deputy Prime Minister last week, but since his being replaced as Kremlin Chief of Staff by Vyacheslav Volodin last year. Volodin is also in the spotlight today in the wake of the ridiculous spy scandal (the arrest of blond wig-wearing alleged C.I.A. member Ryan Fogle), as it is an indication, notes Reuters, that President Vladimir Putin is resorting increasingly to tactics under Volodin’s instruction ‘that hark back to his Soviet and KGB past. Volodin is even sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Vyacheslav Molotov, one of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s foreign ministers. Like Molotov, he is often called “Iron Arse” for spending long hours at his desk.‘ Volodin’s appointment is evidence that the Kremlin no longer needs a ‘grey cardinal‘ (the nickname previously held by Surkov), says the FT, because the time of subtlety has ended, and Volodin is to oversee a much harsher crackdown.
Yet Surkov’s departure will not have a major impact on domestic policy because the new course was already set one year ago, when Vyacheslav Volodin replaced him as head of the presidential administration. Volodin’s political program has already resulted in laws placing limits on nongovernmental organizations, protest rallies and other rights and freedoms, as well as in controls on the elite that bar officials and politicians from opening bank accounts abroad and purchasing foreign stocks and bonds. The authorities decided to create the impression it is trying to fight corruption among government officials to co-opt that battle from the opposition.
At that same time, however, the Kremlin is taking a much harder stance against the opposition than Surkov had pursued. During his heyday, Surkov had employed PR techniques such as having Nashi harass the British ambassador, staging picket lines outside the Estonian Embassy and burning books by Vladimir Sorokin. Those tactics have been replaced with far more aggressive methods, such as criminal charges and prison sentences against opposition leaders and activists. Undesirable NGOs are no longer simply subjected to media smear campaigns. Now investigators show up at their offices with search warrants. Opposition leaders are no longer baited with prostitutes so that the authorities can post compromising videos of them on the Internet. Now they are held in pretrial detention or under house arrest on criminal charges. The new thinking is that all of Surkov’s clever PR ploys were a waste of time and money and did not stop tens of thousands of people from turning out for protest rallies in December 2011. Apparently, Putin decided in the end that Surkov’s schemes were no longer effective and that it was necessary to carry out a more serious crackdown on the opposition.