Surkov Out, Technocrat In

Surkov Out, Technocrat In

Published: June 5, 2013 (Issue # 1762)

Sergei Prikhodko, a foreign policy adviser to Russia’s leaders for more than 15 years, was appointed to Deputy Prime Minister and Government Chief of Staff last week, replacing Vladislav Surkov. President Vladimir Putin did not bother looking for someone outside of the government and did not delegate the post to any of the members of his administration. He simply looked at the men who had been sitting for years on his personal “reserve bench.”

Prikhodko is the quintessential technocrat. Putin, who has a particular fondness for these types, previously appointed technocrats Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Zubkov to prime minister for the same reasons. He values their loyalty and their ability to avoid drawing the attention of the media and public opinion.

Many journalists have positive memories of the way Prikhodko used to hold frequent foreign policy briefings for the media. He has an easygoing manner and even a sense of humor at times. But, as is the case with all technocrats, journalists could rarely glean anything substantial from his briefings.

Political analysts close to the Kremlin were full of praise for Prikhodko’s appointment, claiming that it was a sign of “Putin’s faith in Medvedev’s government.” After all, they argued, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev managed to have “one of his own” appointed to this post.

But these comments strike me as wishful thinking. First, Prikhodko can hardly be considered “Medvedev’s man.” Second, his appointment as chief of staff is unlikely to have even the slightest effect on the fate of the current government. After all, the fate of Medvedev’s government is not determined by his ability to consolidate a team of loyalists around himself, but is entirely dependent on Putin’s will. When Putin decides he no longer wants this government, he will dissolve it.

The first year of the Cabinet’s work was summed up recently and the result was hardly inspiring. It couldn’t claim a single outstanding achievement. Putin has not hidden his displeasure at the way the Cabinet has failed to implement the so-called social decrees he issued one year ago. Although Cabinet members themselves do not dare to oppose Putin, outside experts argue that it would be impossible to implement Putin’s costly populist decrees in a stagnant economy.

In the end, every practical step required for stimulating the economy requires basic political changes. But even Medvedev looks on passively as Putin dismantles nearly all of the “liberal legacies” of his presidency piece by piece.

Even despite direct orders from Putin, the government is dragging its feet in reforming the pension system. It understands that pension reform is a no-win situation. Given Russia’s economic problems and its aging population, it is practically impossible to create a pension system that would make everybody happy. Putin has already said the retirement age cannot be raised and is shifting the burden onto the government to figure out how to pay pensions and to whom.

Putin can thereby comfortably remain above the fray, occasionally criticizing the government for failing to fulfill its duties, while it is clear to most that the Kremlin calls all the shots and should take responsibility for the government’s failures. Putin will dissolve the government only when it begins to negatively influence his own popularity. After all, people could argue he was the one who appointed the government, so why does he tolerate its poor performance and incompetence?

But before Putin dissolves the Cabinet, he must first appoint a new, servile technocrat as prime minister, one that will be just as low-profile and loyal as Medvedev and Prikhodko.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst.

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