SPIEGEL Interview with Kremlin Boss Vladislav Surkov "The West Doesn't Have to Love Us"
Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief strategist, Vladislav Surkov, is said to be the second-most powerful man. The architect of "controlled democracy," Surkov spoke with SPIEGEL about Russian-style, top-down democracy, the Khodorkovsky verdict and fears of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Russia.
Mr. Surkov, in a recent survey of the Russian elite, you were named the country's second-most powerful man -- behind President Vladimir Putin, but well ahead of your immediate superior in the Kremlin and ahead of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Do you feel honored by this?
Surkov: I don't attach too much importance to it. It's probably not entirely true.
SPIEGEL: But it does mean that people see you -- a member of the administration -- as having more power than the head of state. The arrest and conviction of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been attributed to your influence along with that from other members of the Kremlin administration.
Surkov: Those are just rumors. For personal reasons, I find it difficult to take a position on this case. I was on Khodorkovsky's payroll myself for ten years. I'm biased because I respect him, which is one reason I prefer not to comment. Besides, the verdict is still under appeal.
SPIEGEL: The case has also been heavily criticized among some in the president's circle. Who really has the say in the Kremlin administration? The notorious St. Petersburg intelligence agents or the more moderate wing?
Surkov: Of course we have differing views, sometimes moving in diametrically opposed directions, and of course there are differences of opinions. But according to the constitution, the president of the Russian Federation sets the guidelines for actual policy. We are just a tool.
SPIEGEL: In a landmark statement, President Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.
Surkov: There are various assessments of the events of 1991 in our society. Some see them as the hopeful emergence of democracy and civil society. Others see 1991 as a tragic year. Personally, however, I believe that renunciation of the Soviet Union was an expression of the free will of the Russian people. I still remember my own feelings at the time very well. I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if a huge leech had dropped from my back. But on the other hand, it is said that in our enthusiasm for democracy, we were blinded to the problems headed our way. Many were terribly disappointed at the way things turned out and are now saying Russia made the wrong decision. It's a dramatic conflict between opposing viewpoints.
SPIEGEL: What happened differently than expected?
Surkov: When the Soviet Union was dissolved, most of us didn't even have the feeling that the country was falling apart. We thought we would continue with our lives as in the past, but as good neighbors. Of course, we also believed that the West loved us and would help us, and that we'd be living like the Europeans in ten years. But everything turned out to be more complicated.
SPIEGEL: Because the West didn't love you after all?
The Kremlin has been criticized for its handling of the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
SPIEGEL: How far has Putin's Russia come on this path?
SPIEGEL: The people have attained a new sense of soberness. The romantic days are gone. We no longer have the feeling of being surrounded by enemies, but rather by competitors. We have achieved too little when it comes to modernizing our society, and we must look to the West for the technological and intellectual solutions necessary to do so. The idea that we should suddenly be able to produce something, now that we're on our own, is erroneous. We must learn from others.
SPIEGEL: The ruling party, United Russia, in which you play a decisive role, doesn't make an especially dynamic impression intellectually. You yourself portrayed it as something like an elite prep school, when you said: "The rulers form a party so that it will later provide new rulers."
Surkov: I didn't found this party myself; many were involved. But I do work closely with the party. For years, we fought the ghost of the Soviet Communist Party and political party membership was called into question in the public consciousness. It was the right attitude at the time, but not anymore. This is why the president supports the United Russia Party. Just like (German) Chancellor (Gerhard) Schroeder works with the SPD (German Social Democratic Party).
SPIEGEL: The SPD is more fractious and less obedient.
Surkov: You're absolutely right. We are still in the transitional phase. The role of the party should become more important in the country.
SPIEGEL: The role of the party -- or that of the parties?
Surkov: That of the parties. Ultimately they should be capable of producing candidates for the office of president and for the government. Naturally, we are not satisfied with the current state of development. The parties are still works in progress. The main problem is that many support the United Russia Party without even agreeing with its ideology -- or even having an ideology of their own.
SPIEGEL: That's the logical outcome of establishing a party from the top down.
Surkov: We're not exactly talking about an ineffective bureaucratic structure. We also have well-known personalities, ranging from representatives of the liberal right wing to nationalists who support us. The fact that this party is nevertheless able to speak as one voice when it comes to fundamental questions of Russian policy is a positive thing.
SPIEGEL: The word among members of the Duma is that you use text messaging to exert your influence before important votes.
Surkov: That's a lie.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed a nostaligia for the Soviet system.
Surkov: We consider it to be on the conservative end of the spectrum, and we are trying to strengthen this position. The left wing already has plenty of supporters; three of the four parties in the parliament are patriotic leftists. From that perspective, United Russia represents both liberal and conservative values, in a uniquely Russian sense.
SPIEGEL: What does conservative mean under a president who is nostalgic for the Soviet era?
Surkov: Soviet-era nostalgia has strong support among the people. But not among the elite and, in my opinion, not with the president. We are not interested in keeping remnants of the communist era alive, but we do believe in preserving what's been accomplished in the past decade and a half. Admittedly, it's not much, but that's all the more reason to preserve it. Our two peoples have one unfortunate element in common: We wrote the darkest chapters in twentieth-century history -- you Germans in your way, we in ours.
SPIEGEL: Rumor has it that you are currently involved in forming another party that will be loyal to the Kremlin, but this time a liberal party.
Surkov: There is no such project. Parties can't be artificially assembled at the Kremlin.
SPIEGEL: But the Kremlin can certainly be supportive as they develop?
Surkov: Yes, of course, and there isn't anything wrong with that. The instability of our multiparty system is one of our greatest defects. The current balance of power in the parliament makes it difficult to imagine a trouble-free transfer of power. Just look at the Communists or the Rodina Party nationalists. With all due respect, I cannot imagine what would happen to the country if they came to power.
SPIEGEL: So it is, then, preferable to have a two-party system controlled by the Kremlin?
Surkov: We cannot decide for the people how many parties the country needs -- whether we have two or seven, that isn't the decisive issue. More importantly, their caliber must be such that a potential changeover of power would not result in irreversible changes in course.
SPIEGEL: You have already made the uncontrolled creation of a party even more difficult with the recent introduction of a 7 percent hurdle for elections to the Duma.
Surkov: We assume that setting a higher hurdle will encourage parties to combine their energies.
SPIEGEL: This doesn't exactly sound like you are allowing a great deal of latitude in the civil society you and President Putin have often invoked. At the same time, you frequently complain about the dearth of independent experts in the government bureaucracy.
Chechnya is still one of Russia's biggest unsolved problems.
SPIEGEL: You yourself once said that a superior's request is to be interpreted as an order.
Surkov: That's my personal quirk. Generally speaking, our problem is that the political leadership needs to motivate the bureaucrats more.
SPIEGEL: To provide for future party cadres, you founded the new youth organization Nashi, or Ours -- a group the president of the Russian upper house of parliament has compared with Mao's Red Guard. Does modern Russia truly need 50,000 young supporters of the system who march through Moscow chanting anti-fascist slogans?
Surkov: We almost completely lost the youth of the nineties. They had little interest in politics, and perhaps that was even a good thing. But now we are seeing a growing desire among young people to become involved in politics -- and this is something we must address.
SPIEGEL: A group of young nationalist-Bolsheviks, who recently occupied the ministry of health and blocked a gate to the Kremlin, ended up with five-year prison sentences.
Surkov: The judiciary is responsible for sentences and acquittals. But one thing is certain: These (young Bolsheviks) represent a danger that cannot be underestimated. Terrorism is rampant in Russia. There were 250 terrorist attacks last year alone. If chauvinistic, pro-fascist forces were now to provoke a wave of Islamic extremism, the integrity of our multinational state would truly be in jeopardy.
SPIEGEL: Despite the government's claims to the contrary, Chechnya is still consumed by violence. And the crisis is increasingly spreading to neighboring republics in the northern Caucasus region, especially Dagestan.
Surkov: There is no longer outright war, but terrorist attacks continue unabated. Our position is this: We must retain the northern Caucasus as part of the Russian Federation. And we refuse to negotiate with the murderers of our children. We must do a better job of improving social conditions in the region -- employment, education, youth programs. In Chechnya, 70 percent of the employable population is officially jobless. This figure may be exaggerated, but it's still a catastrophe.
Tens of thousands young people in T-shirts bearing Soviet-style red stars march to a patriotic rally organized by the nationalist pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, a group controlled by Vladislav Surkov.
Surkov: Radical Islamic groups, both local and foreign. Of course, they wouldn't be having such an easy time of it down there if we hadn't made so many mistakes. Laws are meaningless there. What counts is the power of clans, and the region remains ethnically and culturally isolated from the rest of Russia.
Surkov: You yourself have your roots in the northern Caucasus.
Surkov: Yes, my father is Chechen, and I spent the first five years of my live in Chechnya. As someone who grew up there, I say: The Chechen Republic must remain part of Russia. Everything else is negotiable.
SPIEGEL: Chechnya isn't the only danger threatening Russia from the south. How do you defend yourself against the revolutionary virus that could jump over into Russia from Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine?
Surkov: Those were not revolutions. The revolutions in those countries took place in the nineties, as in Russia, and they brought about fundamental changes in social structures. Since then, they have had market economies, multiparty systems, free elections and freedom of the press.
SPIEGEL: Then let's call them uprisings against the ruling system. Does this worry you?
Surkov: There will be no uprisings here. We realize, of course, that these events have made an impression on many local politicians in Russia -- and on various foreign non-governmental organizations that would like to see the scenario repeated in Russia. We understand this. By now there are even technologies for overthrowing governments and schools where one can learn the trade, so to speak.
SPIEGEL: Is the number of rebels in Russia on the rise?
Surkov: For now, they are on rather unsure footing. There will undoubtedly be attempts to overthrow the government. But they will fail.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Surkov, thank you for speaking with us.
Vladislav Surkov is the Deputy Director of the Kremlin administration, and acts as Russian President Vladimir Putin's right-hand man. As a strategist of "guided democracy," he controls both chambers of parliament as well as the pro-government parties and youth organizations. He also supervises the constitutional courts and Russia's provincial governors. Surkov, 40, worked as a senior executive for now-convicted oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and deputy director of a semi-national television station before moving to the Kremlin in 1998, when Boris Yeltsin was still the Russian president.
THE INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY EDITORS UWE KLUSSMANN AND WALTER MAYR IN SURKOV'S MOSCOW OFFICE.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan