Daily Archives: January 23, 2007

Annals of Cold War II: Russia Provokes the Entire World

For some time now, certain deluded Russians have labored under the vodka-and- gas-fume-induced hallucination that Europe liked Russia better than the United States, and that the pair would team up to crush evil America. Not that it was ever close to being true, but recent Russian actions have made it impossible for any but the most truly crazed Russophile maniacs to cling to even the illusion.

The Moscow Times reports on how Europe, led by the able (and female!) German Chancellor, is galvanizing for the confrontation:

Angela Merkel has a very different attitude to Russia from the last three or four German chancellors, perhaps because she grew up in East Germany, under Russian control. She’s not anti-Russian (she speaks the language fluently), but she doesn’t think that they deserve special treatment. So when Russia suddenly cut of the flow of oil to Germany and several other European Union countries on Jan. 8 because of a dispute with Belarus, she did not waste time on tact.

“It’s unacceptable,” she said, “when there are no consultations on such actions. That always destroys trust.” It was the harshest thing that any German chancellor has said to any Russian leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union — and she said it, moreover, in her capacity as the current president of the European Union, a post that she had assumed just days before. Something is going on here.

The dead of winter is the ideal time for an energy supplier to have a confrontation with an energy-poor customer in a cold climate, and this is the second January in a row that Russia has pulled the plug on a neighbor that was resisting hefty increases in the price it paid for Russian gas and oil. Last year it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. In each case, Moscow brought them to heel by turning off the taps — but that also cut off its EU customers farther west, since the pipelines pass through Belarus and Ukraine en route to the rest of Europe. The EU was not amused.

“We are paying for these energy resources and are never late in our payments,” EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs saidin mid-January. “We have a right to insist that you never disrupt supply.” But behind Piebalgs’s stern insistence that “the disruption to oil supplies we have seen in the last few days must never, never happen again” was the knowledge that it might well happen again. The Russian negotiating style is too muscular for the EU’s taste, and what happens to Ukraine or Belarus today might happen to other Russian customers tomorrow.

When Moscow told Minsk that the price of gas was going up from $47 to $105 per thousand cubic meters on Jan. 1 and that it was imposing a “customs duty” of $180 per ton on the oil Belarus buys from Russia, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s first response was defiance: “We will live in dug-outs, but we will not surrender to blackmail.”

Belarus has no energy resources of its own, and Lukashenko’s popular support among poorer Belarussians depends entirely on the fact that he has preserved the old Soviet system and the guaranteed minimum living standard that it provided. His support would probably not survive a prolonged bout of hardship as a result of a confrontation with Russia over energy prices, so he took a different tack.

Just after the new year, Lukashenko accepted the Russian demands on oil and gas prices — but then he tried to claw the money back by imposing a $45 per ton “transit fee” on all the oil passing through Belarussian pipelines to the EU. What’s more, knowing that he could never force Moscow to pay up, Lukashenko started collecting the fee in kind by diverting oil from the pipeline that crosses Belarussian territory on its way to the EU. So Moscow shut the pipeline down.

Fair enough, in the bandit world of post-Soviet capitalism — and it brought Lukashenko sharply to heel. He gave in completely, and since he has now also been forced to sell 50 percent control of Belarus’ pipelines to Russia he will never pose this problem again. But farther west, the EU is quietly re-examining its energy calculations as the lesson sinks in that it is unwise to be too dependent on energy supplies from post-Soviet Russia. (The EU imports one quarter of its oil and 42 percent of its gas from Russia.)

As Piebalgs put it: “If there’s disruption of supply, it’s not retaliation that’s required but appropriate action. … You simply conclude that this partner is not worth your trust and you don’t make any more contracts.” There will actually be lots more contracts, because nobody can switch the bulk of their energy purchases overnight, but the trend line in EU purchases of Russian energy is likely to be down.

Chancellor Merkel is already saying that Germany should reconsider its plan to phase out nuclear power by 2020, although she cannot do so under the terms of the current coalition agreement with the Social Democrats. More importantly for the near future, she is urging private industry to build a network of gas pipelines across the EU that is connected to liquefied natural gas ports in Germany and elsewhere. That would give the EU, and especially the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, an alternative to heavy dependence on Russian energy.

Russia doesn’t care. In the long run, it can probably sell almost all of its exportable oil and gas to China and other East Asian customers (though the pipelines mostly have yet to be built). But a major strategic shift is getting under way: The EU no longer assumes that Russia is a reliable partner or even a friend.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports on the latest development in the Cold War II arms race as Russia alienates and provokes not only Europe but also the U.S.:

A top Russian general on Monday criticised a U.S. decision to place an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to Moscow, news agencies reported. “Our analysis shows that the placing of a radio locating station in the Czech Republic and anti-missile equipment in Poland is a real threat to us,” Lieutenant-General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of Russia’s space forces, said. A U.S. State Department spokesman said on Sunday that Poland and the Czech Republic had agreed to start detailed discussions with Washington on hosting anti-missile defences.

The United States is investing around $10 billion (5 billion pounds) a year in developing the missile shield system, which combines a long-range radar system with rockets to shoot down hostile missiles in space. “It’s very doubtful that elements of the national U.S. missile defence system in eastern Europe were aimed at Iranian missiles, as has been stated,” Popovkin said.

Russia has repeatedly opposed the project, brushing aside U.S. assurances that the system is not aimed at Moscow. Last year Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov attacked the missile shield as an attempt to change the strategic balance between Russia and the West.

Russia will undoubtedly go on blaming “foriegn russophobes” for a baseless conspiracy against Russia, just as the USSR did right up until the time it was no more. Never once will Russians stop and think that maybe, just maybe, they might be heading down the wrong path (again).

Who has Replaced Poltikovskaya?

In an October 2006 op-ed in the Newark Star Ledger, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Joel Simon asked in the wake of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya: “Who will be Russia’s conscience now”? It’s well to repeat his question often and loudly. Now, with several months of hindsight, can we answer? If not, that makes it much more likely that it was worthwhile for the Kremlin to run the risk of being exposed, since it would have closed down a major avenue of criticism and a significant source of threat to its power. Who is the new Politkovskaya? Is it true in Russia, as Victor Laslow said in Casablanca, that “there will be, always, someone else”? What are we, in the West, doing to identify and support the “new Politkovskaya”? If you want to be depressed, try putting her name into Google images and see how many different pictures of her face you get. Sadly, far too few high-quality images.

Russian journalist Anna Polit kovskaya, who was murdered in her apartment building in Moscow on Oct. 7, was a fearless crusader, and, like many of her ilk, she was not always easy company. She received numerous international awards and accolades, and she gamely gave speeches and col lected plaques. But Politkovskaya did not enjoy the spotlight. She didn’t want to talk about herself; she wanted to talk about what was happening in Chechnya and the brutal war that she would let no one forget. Talking to Politkov skaya, a colleague said, was “like talking to your own conscience.”

Has Russia’s conscience been murdered? There might be no one left — no one of Politkovskaya’s caliber — to tell the Russian people about the brutality being committed in their name.

President Vladimir Putin, for one, is not shedding any tears. He has refused so far to address the Russian people about her murder. He begrudgingly made his only public comments at a news conference in Germany, duly promising an investigation, but also noting that Politkovskaya’s “influence on the country’s political life … was minimal.”

Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist murdered in Russia in a contract-style killing since Putin came to office in 2000. Among those murdered with impunity was Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes Russia, who was executed outside his Moscow office in July 2004. Two suspects, tried in secret, were acquitted in May amid allegations of procedural violations, including jury and witness intimidation. The master minds are still at large, and prosecutors seem in no rush to find them.

Politkovskaya is also the 43rd journalist killed for her work in Russia in the last 15 years, making Russia the third most deadly country for journalists during this period, behind only conflict-ridden Iraq and Algeria. While most Americans recognize that journalism can be a dangerous profession, they tend to think of international war correspondents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists study released last month, Polit kovskaya is typical of the vast majority of the journalists killed around the world.

Nearly 70 percent of the 580 journalists killed since 1992 were murdered in retaliation for their reporting. Most were victims of gangland-style assassinations, and most were cut down not on assignment but where they could be most easily found — near their offices or homes. Politkovskaya, who survived extended reporting stints in war-ravaged Chechnya, was executed in her own elevator in Moscow while returning from a trip to the grocery store. The gunman, shown in an eerie security video, shot her in the heart and head and then tossed the murder weapon on the ground by Politkovskaya’s lifeless body.

While Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world for the press, even there journalists are more likely to be murdered than to be killed in combat. The same is true in other countries that are among the world’s most dangerous: the Philippines, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia.

Insurgents like those in Iraq and Colombia are responsible for one in five journalists murdered over the past 15 years, according to CPJ research. But government forces, including civilian and military officials, are responsible for even more slayings — more than one out of every four. Paramilitaries allied with governments are linked to another 8 percent of journalist murders, meaning that government officials or their allies are responsible for more than one-third of journalist murders worldwide.

These kinds of unsolved murders have a ripple effect. As the former Colombian prosecutor Pedro Diaz Romero recently noted, “To take the life of a journalist is to shut down a channel of information for the community. And after one journalist is killed, a threat or act of physical intimidation may be enough to send the message to the community at large.”

Russia is a uniquely dangerous place for journalists because it is both violent and repressive. Putin seems not only indifferent to the plight of murdered journalists, he has brought much of the once thriving post-Soviet media under indirect government control through the use of punitive tax audits and hostile takeovers. All three major television networks are now in the hands of Kremlin loyalists. The media itself is ordinarily a key ally in the fight against impunity; with most of the Russian press allied with Putin’s government, achieving justice in the Politkovskaya murder will be an uphill battle.

Putin seems unmoved by international criticism of his coun try’s human rights record. His remarks about Politkovskaya’s murder seemed calculated to play the nationalist card, the notion that her death matters only to meddling foreigners.

But Russians do care. They turned out by the thousands for Politkovskaya’s funeral and have demanded an investigation. But without sympathetic coverage in the domestic media their demands have no echo in Russian public opinion, and without that echo there is little pressure on Putin’s government.

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s greatest investigative reporters and one of the world’s leading experts on the conflict in Chechnya. At the time of her death, she was preparing to publish a story alleging that Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, had been involved in torture.

Four days after the murder, Kadyrov denied any involvement. Speaking on the state-controlled NTV, he said: “I don’t kill women. Women should be loved. For us Chechens, a woman is sacred.” But Kadyrov certainly has reasons to hold a grudge. Two days prior to her assassination, Polit kovskaya gave an interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She spoke of the human rights abuses committed by Kadyrov’s militia in Chechnya and called him “a Stalin of our times.”

She said she “dreamed of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.” Polit kovskaya added that she was a witness in a criminal case against Kadyrov, one launched as a result of articles published by her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

If, as many suspect, there turns out to be a Chechen connection to her murder, the irony is that the only journalist in the world who might have been able to uncover the truth is Politkovksaya herself. Now that she has been brutally gunned down, who will tell the story of her murder? Who will serve as Russia’s conscience?

It’s sometimes said that Lenin did not want to be replaced by Stalin, recognizing him for the maniac he turned out to be, but being infirm Lenin was not able to take sufficient steps to arrange for his sucessor before his demise. If there is any valid criticism of Politkovskaya, it would be that she, too, failed to make adequate preparations for her successorship. But that’s only a criticism if there was someone willing and able to replace her that she could have identified and nurtured. And, it appears, that may well be an open question. In fact, it’s perhaps the most salient question on Russian politics today to ask: Is Russia is even worth risking one’s life for? The answer to that question, which can only be given by the people of Russia, will determine the country’s destiny. If nobody will step forward to pick up Politkovskaya’s fallen standard, then Russia will be Zaire with Permafrost.

On the other hand, one can also fault the CPJ to some extent. After all, nowhere in this article does the CPJ identify possible successors (much less seek to support them), as La Russophobe has previously done. In fact, while the CPJ has done yeoman’s work in documenting the Kremlin’s atrocities, it is not doing enough to identify and protect future victims.

Russia Profile: The Dark Side of the Force?

The above banner is a paid advertisement currently running on the RIA Novosti website. Click on the banner, and you are directed to the website of Russia Profile and specifically to the following announcement:

Panel Discussion with Former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, and Aide to the President of the Russian Federation and former G8 Sherpa, Igor Shuvalov. For more information or to register, please contact Katja Wall at gus@dgap.org or by fax at +49 / 30 / 254 231 68. Registration is a must in order to participate in the discussion.

So basically, it’s an advertisement for the Kremlin.

As reported yesterday on La Russophobe, Shuvalov and the demented, evil Schroeder are teaming up to try and shield the Kremlin from blame in the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya killings with a disgusting propaganda campaign — and Russia Profile is sponsoring it (here’s their writeup of the proceedings)! That pretty much tells you all you need to know about Russia Profile, but there are one or two additional details to consider.

What exactly is Russia profile? It’s published by Independent Media, the entity also responsible for the brilliant Moscow Times, in cooperation with David Johnson’s Center for Defense Information, RIA Novosti, and something called the International Relations and Security Network of Zurich Switzerland. It maintains a blog by one Dmitry Babich, which offers such posts as “Whose Double Standards: Far from showing Russia’s unreliability as an energy supplier, Gazprom’s recent threats to suspend natural gas exports to Belarus have only exposed the hypocrisy of the West” and one claiming that since Yegor Gaidar stated publicly that the Kremlin didn’t try to kill him, that made it a fact and Gaidar man “worthy of respect.” No mention of the possiblity that Gaidar might have caved in to Kremlin threats.

Russia Profile’s “Advisory Board” includes the Rector of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee, State Duma of the Russian Federation. In other words, it’s a Russophile propaganda outlet in boring, yawn-inducing clothing. It maintains an “Experts Panel” feature that provides a token Russophobe voice surrounded by a sea of Russophiles and Russian nationalists. In the most recent intallment, entitled “Friendless in Moscow: Does Russia Need Allies?” the lead entry is from the lunatic Russophile Eric Kraus, a stockbroker who spends most of his time convincing hapless foreigners that Russia is a great place to plop down their money (yet never mentions this conflict of interest when he tells us how great Russia is and how benign and wise is that malignant little troll Vladimir Putin).

Possibly, Independent Media has set up Russia Profile as a way of counterbalancing the Russophobic Moscow Times, which in fact is doing nothing more that just reporting the news. Perhaps they hope that by doing so they can stave off the day when the KGB arrives at the Moscow Times offices and places the whole shooting match under arrest. On the other hand, perhaps the publishers simply haven’t got the slightest freakin’ clue what the hell is going on over there. Maybe somebody should write to Stephan Grootenboer, Independent Media’s publisher, and tell him. The token Russophobe is Leon Aron, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute. Perhaps he too should be told about what is going on under his watch.

The Kremlin’s Karl Rove

The Chicago Tribune reports on Vladislav Surkov, who it calls the “Kremlin’s Karl Rove”:

He’s the Kremlin’s version of Karl Rove, a cunning, behind-the-scenes strategist who could play a pivotal role in the upcoming political season that will forge Russia’s post-Putin era.

Vladislav Surkov may not be a household name, but in many respects the 42-year-old Kremlin adviser has been the master craftsman behind Vladimir Putin’s steady accumulation of power over the last seven years.

Surkov engineered the birth of Putin’s United Russia party, as well as its eventual domination over every nook and cranny of political life in Russia. He also is widely believed to be the driving force behind pro-Kremlin youth movements manufactured to counter the kind of youth opposition that stoked the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. More recently, those youth movements have taken on a new role–to seed a new generation of political leaders devoted to Putin’s agenda.

Now Surkov faces the daunting role of adman for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections in December and, more important, a presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin wants to engineer a presidential succession that best ensures a continuation of Putin-inspired governance. Russia’s Constitution bars Putin from seeking a third term as president. Ostensibly, Russia will elect a new president, but it’s widely expected that Putin will handpick a successor who will go into the election with full support from the government and the country’s state-controlled television networks.

So far the leading candidates for the job are Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and, like Putin, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former chief of staff and now a deputy prime minister and board chairman of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Whomever Putin selects, he already has said he will continue to wield influence over Russia in some capacity after the election.

In his annual televised Q&A with Russians last October, Putin cryptically declared that, even after he leaves office, he would “retain the most important asset that a person involved in politics should cherish–your trust. And by using that, together we will be able to . . . exert influence on what happens in Russia.”

Putin has never elaborated on what he meant, but given his czarlike approach to running the country and popularity ratings that top 70 percent, the declaration is hardly an idle one. Russian commentators have speculated he could become prime minister in a government where presidential power is drastically weakened, or could become head of the dominant United Russia party.

Whatever scenario the Kremlin chooses, Surkov is likely to be tapped to help ensure its smooth execution. Surkov is regarded by many political observers as Russia’s second most powerful person behind Putin. On a daily basis, he stewards Kremlin legislative proposals through parliament, but he also is Putin’s chief ideologue and political adviser. His oversight of the creation of United Russia led to that party’s takeover of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament in the 2003 elections. United Russia is expected to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Analysts also say Surkov was instrumental in the formation of the Rodina party, a nationalist party the Kremlin created solely to take away votes from the Communist Party, United Russia’s chief competition in 2003.

Surkov has given a name to governance under Putin’s Kremlin, calling it a “sovereign democracy,” a label he says stresses Russia’s desire to not “be managed from the outside” but one critics in the West say is a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Surkov’s prominence within Kremlin circles is particularly surprising given his background. Unlike Putin and other top advisers in the president’s entourage, Surkov is not a former KGB agent. He’s a college dropout who spent 10 years working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil magnate jailed for what many in the West believe was his political opposition to the Kremlin. Surkov became a Kremlin adviser under President Boris Yeltsin in early 1999 and survived the personnel shuffle when Putin took over.

Now Surkov finds himself as the Kremlin’s top political adviser as Russia braces for new leadership, a crucial moment in the country’s post-Soviet history. Having survived the tumultuous last year of the Yeltsin presidency, Surkov now must help ensure that the transition into the post-Putin era goes according to script.

Though Putin has Russian politics under his thumb, the Kremlin has become highly factionalized during his presidency. Putin’s push to regain control of Russia’s natural resources assets has widened those fissures, as top officials scrum for a piece of the pie.

Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet-era politics as “the bulldog fight under the carpet.” With a crucial political season looming, Surkov and the rest of the Kremlin are likely to find Churchill’s description equally relevant today.

The Kremlin’s Karl Rove

The Chicago Tribune reports on Vladislav Surkov, who it calls the “Kremlin’s Karl Rove”:

He’s the Kremlin’s version of Karl Rove, a cunning, behind-the-scenes strategist who could play a pivotal role in the upcoming political season that will forge Russia’s post-Putin era.

Vladislav Surkov may not be a household name, but in many respects the 42-year-old Kremlin adviser has been the master craftsman behind Vladimir Putin’s steady accumulation of power over the last seven years.

Surkov engineered the birth of Putin’s United Russia party, as well as its eventual domination over every nook and cranny of political life in Russia. He also is widely believed to be the driving force behind pro-Kremlin youth movements manufactured to counter the kind of youth opposition that stoked the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. More recently, those youth movements have taken on a new role–to seed a new generation of political leaders devoted to Putin’s agenda.

Now Surkov faces the daunting role of adman for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections in December and, more important, a presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin wants to engineer a presidential succession that best ensures a continuation of Putin-inspired governance. Russia’s Constitution bars Putin from seeking a third term as president. Ostensibly, Russia will elect a new president, but it’s widely expected that Putin will handpick a successor who will go into the election with full support from the government and the country’s state-controlled television networks.

So far the leading candidates for the job are Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and, like Putin, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former chief of staff and now a deputy prime minister and board chairman of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Whomever Putin selects, he already has said he will continue to wield influence over Russia in some capacity after the election.

In his annual televised Q&A with Russians last October, Putin cryptically declared that, even after he leaves office, he would “retain the most important asset that a person involved in politics should cherish–your trust. And by using that, together we will be able to . . . exert influence on what happens in Russia.”

Putin has never elaborated on what he meant, but given his czarlike approach to running the country and popularity ratings that top 70 percent, the declaration is hardly an idle one. Russian commentators have speculated he could become prime minister in a government where presidential power is drastically weakened, or could become head of the dominant United Russia party.

Whatever scenario the Kremlin chooses, Surkov is likely to be tapped to help ensure its smooth execution. Surkov is regarded by many political observers as Russia’s second most powerful person behind Putin. On a daily basis, he stewards Kremlin legislative proposals through parliament, but he also is Putin’s chief ideologue and political adviser. His oversight of the creation of United Russia led to that party’s takeover of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament in the 2003 elections. United Russia is expected to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Analysts also say Surkov was instrumental in the formation of the Rodina party, a nationalist party the Kremlin created solely to take away votes from the Communist Party, United Russia’s chief competition in 2003.

Surkov has given a name to governance under Putin’s Kremlin, calling it a “sovereign democracy,” a label he says stresses Russia’s desire to not “be managed from the outside” but one critics in the West say is a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Surkov’s prominence within Kremlin circles is particularly surprising given his background. Unlike Putin and other top advisers in the president’s entourage, Surkov is not a former KGB agent. He’s a college dropout who spent 10 years working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil magnate jailed for what many in the West believe was his political opposition to the Kremlin. Surkov became a Kremlin adviser under President Boris Yeltsin in early 1999 and survived the personnel shuffle when Putin took over.

Now Surkov finds himself as the Kremlin’s top political adviser as Russia braces for new leadership, a crucial moment in the country’s post-Soviet history. Having survived the tumultuous last year of the Yeltsin presidency, Surkov now must help ensure that the transition into the post-Putin era goes according to script.

Though Putin has Russian politics under his thumb, the Kremlin has become highly factionalized during his presidency. Putin’s push to regain control of Russia’s natural resources assets has widened those fissures, as top officials scrum for a piece of the pie.

Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet-era politics as “the bulldog fight under the carpet.” With a crucial political season looming, Surkov and the rest of the Kremlin are likely to find Churchill’s description equally relevant today.

The Kremlin’s Karl Rove

The Chicago Tribune reports on Vladislav Surkov, who it calls the “Kremlin’s Karl Rove”:

He’s the Kremlin’s version of Karl Rove, a cunning, behind-the-scenes strategist who could play a pivotal role in the upcoming political season that will forge Russia’s post-Putin era.

Vladislav Surkov may not be a household name, but in many respects the 42-year-old Kremlin adviser has been the master craftsman behind Vladimir Putin’s steady accumulation of power over the last seven years.

Surkov engineered the birth of Putin’s United Russia party, as well as its eventual domination over every nook and cranny of political life in Russia. He also is widely believed to be the driving force behind pro-Kremlin youth movements manufactured to counter the kind of youth opposition that stoked the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. More recently, those youth movements have taken on a new role–to seed a new generation of political leaders devoted to Putin’s agenda.

Now Surkov faces the daunting role of adman for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections in December and, more important, a presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin wants to engineer a presidential succession that best ensures a continuation of Putin-inspired governance. Russia’s Constitution bars Putin from seeking a third term as president. Ostensibly, Russia will elect a new president, but it’s widely expected that Putin will handpick a successor who will go into the election with full support from the government and the country’s state-controlled television networks.

So far the leading candidates for the job are Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and, like Putin, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former chief of staff and now a deputy prime minister and board chairman of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Whomever Putin selects, he already has said he will continue to wield influence over Russia in some capacity after the election.

In his annual televised Q&A with Russians last October, Putin cryptically declared that, even after he leaves office, he would “retain the most important asset that a person involved in politics should cherish–your trust. And by using that, together we will be able to . . . exert influence on what happens in Russia.”

Putin has never elaborated on what he meant, but given his czarlike approach to running the country and popularity ratings that top 70 percent, the declaration is hardly an idle one. Russian commentators have speculated he could become prime minister in a government where presidential power is drastically weakened, or could become head of the dominant United Russia party.

Whatever scenario the Kremlin chooses, Surkov is likely to be tapped to help ensure its smooth execution. Surkov is regarded by many political observers as Russia’s second most powerful person behind Putin. On a daily basis, he stewards Kremlin legislative proposals through parliament, but he also is Putin’s chief ideologue and political adviser. His oversight of the creation of United Russia led to that party’s takeover of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament in the 2003 elections. United Russia is expected to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Analysts also say Surkov was instrumental in the formation of the Rodina party, a nationalist party the Kremlin created solely to take away votes from the Communist Party, United Russia’s chief competition in 2003.

Surkov has given a name to governance under Putin’s Kremlin, calling it a “sovereign democracy,” a label he says stresses Russia’s desire to not “be managed from the outside” but one critics in the West say is a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Surkov’s prominence within Kremlin circles is particularly surprising given his background. Unlike Putin and other top advisers in the president’s entourage, Surkov is not a former KGB agent. He’s a college dropout who spent 10 years working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil magnate jailed for what many in the West believe was his political opposition to the Kremlin. Surkov became a Kremlin adviser under President Boris Yeltsin in early 1999 and survived the personnel shuffle when Putin took over.

Now Surkov finds himself as the Kremlin’s top political adviser as Russia braces for new leadership, a crucial moment in the country’s post-Soviet history. Having survived the tumultuous last year of the Yeltsin presidency, Surkov now must help ensure that the transition into the post-Putin era goes according to script.

Though Putin has Russian politics under his thumb, the Kremlin has become highly factionalized during his presidency. Putin’s push to regain control of Russia’s natural resources assets has widened those fissures, as top officials scrum for a piece of the pie.

Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet-era politics as “the bulldog fight under the carpet.” With a crucial political season looming, Surkov and the rest of the Kremlin are likely to find Churchill’s description equally relevant today.

The Kremlin’s Karl Rove

The Chicago Tribune reports on Vladislav Surkov, who it calls the “Kremlin’s Karl Rove”:

He’s the Kremlin’s version of Karl Rove, a cunning, behind-the-scenes strategist who could play a pivotal role in the upcoming political season that will forge Russia’s post-Putin era.

Vladislav Surkov may not be a household name, but in many respects the 42-year-old Kremlin adviser has been the master craftsman behind Vladimir Putin’s steady accumulation of power over the last seven years.

Surkov engineered the birth of Putin’s United Russia party, as well as its eventual domination over every nook and cranny of political life in Russia. He also is widely believed to be the driving force behind pro-Kremlin youth movements manufactured to counter the kind of youth opposition that stoked the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. More recently, those youth movements have taken on a new role–to seed a new generation of political leaders devoted to Putin’s agenda.

Now Surkov faces the daunting role of adman for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections in December and, more important, a presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin wants to engineer a presidential succession that best ensures a continuation of Putin-inspired governance. Russia’s Constitution bars Putin from seeking a third term as president. Ostensibly, Russia will elect a new president, but it’s widely expected that Putin will handpick a successor who will go into the election with full support from the government and the country’s state-controlled television networks.

So far the leading candidates for the job are Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and, like Putin, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former chief of staff and now a deputy prime minister and board chairman of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. Whomever Putin selects, he already has said he will continue to wield influence over Russia in some capacity after the election.

In his annual televised Q&A with Russians last October, Putin cryptically declared that, even after he leaves office, he would “retain the most important asset that a person involved in politics should cherish–your trust. And by using that, together we will be able to . . . exert influence on what happens in Russia.”

Putin has never elaborated on what he meant, but given his czarlike approach to running the country and popularity ratings that top 70 percent, the declaration is hardly an idle one. Russian commentators have speculated he could become prime minister in a government where presidential power is drastically weakened, or could become head of the dominant United Russia party.

Whatever scenario the Kremlin chooses, Surkov is likely to be tapped to help ensure its smooth execution. Surkov is regarded by many political observers as Russia’s second most powerful person behind Putin. On a daily basis, he stewards Kremlin legislative proposals through parliament, but he also is Putin’s chief ideologue and political adviser. His oversight of the creation of United Russia led to that party’s takeover of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament in the 2003 elections. United Russia is expected to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Analysts also say Surkov was instrumental in the formation of the Rodina party, a nationalist party the Kremlin created solely to take away votes from the Communist Party, United Russia’s chief competition in 2003.

Surkov has given a name to governance under Putin’s Kremlin, calling it a “sovereign democracy,” a label he says stresses Russia’s desire to not “be managed from the outside” but one critics in the West say is a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Surkov’s prominence within Kremlin circles is particularly surprising given his background. Unlike Putin and other top advisers in the president’s entourage, Surkov is not a former KGB agent. He’s a college dropout who spent 10 years working for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil magnate jailed for what many in the West believe was his political opposition to the Kremlin. Surkov became a Kremlin adviser under President Boris Yeltsin in early 1999 and survived the personnel shuffle when Putin took over.

Now Surkov finds himself as the Kremlin’s top political adviser as Russia braces for new leadership, a crucial moment in the country’s post-Soviet history. Having survived the tumultuous last year of the Yeltsin presidency, Surkov now must help ensure that the transition into the post-Putin era goes according to script.

Though Putin has Russian politics under his thumb, the Kremlin has become highly factionalized during his presidency. Putin’s push to regain control of Russia’s natural resources assets has widened those fissures, as top officials scrum for a piece of the pie.

Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet-era politics as “the bulldog fight under the carpet.” With a crucial political season looming, Surkov and the rest of the Kremlin are likely to find Churchill’s description equally relevant today.