Surkov Counters Western Critics

By Stephen Boykewich
The Moscow Times

Thursday, June 29, 2006. Page 1.

Secretive presidential aide Vladislav Surkov emerged from the shadows Wednesday to defend Russia‘s political path, quoting foreign journalists’ articles back to them during a lengthy news conference marked by historical and literary references.

The goal of the nearly two-hour briefing seemed clear: to counter a growing tide of Western criticism of Russia‘s authoritarianism just two weeks before Group of Eight leaders convene in St. Petersburg.

Still, Surkov appeared reticent to let too many journalists in on his thoughts: Some reporters were informed of the briefing just an hour in advance.

Addressing a question about a rollback of democracy in Russia, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff quoted from a 1997 New York Times article and a 1998 Independent article that described Russia as chaotic, criminal and undemocratic.

“That’s what you and your colleagues thought about Russian democracy in the 1990s,” Surkov said. “That’s what we’re rolling back from, and we’re going to roll back from it as far as we can.”

Surkov’s decision to quote reporters who may well have been in the room — a fact he acknowledged with a grin — was a bit of theater that showed how keenly aware the Kremlin is of the pre-summit criticism it faces from the West.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov opened the briefing by limiting questions to domestic politics, saying: “We don’t advocate exaggerating the significance of the G8 for Russian political life.”

But Surkov’s often-erudite remarks implied the opposite.

He stressed one theme that has earned much domestic attention: the need for a set of guiding principles.

“I believe its main components will be no different than common European values and models,” said Surkov, 41, who is credited with having masterminded the United Russia and Rodina parties and the youth movement Nashi.

“Russia’s version of European culture is of course a specific one, but no more specific than Germany’s, France’s or Britain’s.”

When a Swiss reporter suggested that Western democracies were formed from the bottom up, while Russia’s was top-down, Surkov countered with a quote from U.S. linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky, Surkov said, wrote that U.S. democracy only appeared to represent the will of the people. Grass-roots politics, he added, “is something we need to head toward, I agree. But in practice, everything is far more complicated.”

Elaborating on the frequent Kremlin claim that foreign critics apply double standards to Russia, Surkov said Germany and Japan saw decades of parliamentary rule by a single party. He grew heated while defending United Russia’s dominance.

“Does [U.S. President George W. Bush] support the Republican Party or not? Does [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair support the Labor Party or not?” Surkov said. “We support the party that supports the president — how can we do otherwise? Are we the only ones not allowed to have a majority in parliament that supports the president?

“They frequently tell us that Russia has a managed parliament, but are we really the only ones? Is that really forbidden in a democracy? In the U.S. parliament, these same Republicans have a majority.”

Turning to Nashi, Surkov said: “We naturally contact and support those who support us.” He added that “it is important not to excessively control” the youth-movement phenomenon.

He declined to comment on a recent “astonishing story” in The Wall Street Journal that Nashi had helped organize and fund a series of paid demonstrations in the United States, saying he knew only what he had read in the press.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Surkov gave short shrift to Russia’s domestic opposition. He said that it was “untrue” that opposition politicians weren’t covered on state television and that the perception they were covered unfairly was “a matter of taste.”

He was equally reserved when it came to the question of Putin’s successor. Asked whether Putin would return for a third term in 2012, Surkov smiled and said: “Time will tell.”

Surkov repeatedly veered beyond domestic politics in the briefing, during which he gave a brief prescription for how Western nations should learn from Russia: “Read Dostoevsky.”

He also said he agreed with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney — at least on one point.

Surkov said that Cheney’s controversial May 5 speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which he accused Russia of using energy resources for “intimidation and blackmail,” had been “misunderstood.”

Surkov quoted Cheney at length. “I completely agree with Mr. Cheney’s understanding of ‘sovereign democracy,'” Surkov said. “We have the same understanding.”

But he omitted earlier comments in Cheney’s speech in which the vice president questioned Russia’s respect for self-government in former Soviet republics.

And Surkov may well have been referring to Cheney when he attributed much Western criticism to “people who caught a cold during the Cold War and haven’t gotten better yet.”

“Russia doesn’t believe that it was conquered in the Cold War. It believes it conquered its own totalitarianism,” Surkov said.

Surkov also struck a note of concession, saying Russia welcomed Western criticism.

“In the end, criticism can be beneficial to us,” he said. “It’s even necessary so that our society doesn’t return to the … state that we have been so slowly and with so much difficulty moving away from over the past 20 years,” Surkov said.

Kremlin-connected analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov said there was no doubt as to why Surkov had decided to address reporters at this particular time. “It’s because of the G8,” Nikonov said.

He added that the choice of the rarely seen Surkov, whom he confirmed had a key role in forging Kremlin ideology, was a significant one.

“He’s not simply a presidential aide,” Nikonov said. “He’s a serious and influential political figure in his own right.”