Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced the resignation of his influential deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov credited with designing the country's notorious political system.
The Kremlin said in a statement that Surkov had left his post voluntarily, but analysts and observers said the former grey cardinal might have been forced out amid a growing rift between Putin's Kremlin and the government.
Putin issued a decree "to free Surkov of his duties as deputy prime minister and head of the government apparatus according to his own wish," while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalia Timakova told AFP that Surkov tendered his resignation on 26 April.
His departure comes amid what observers describe as signs of growing infighting among Kremlin elites during Putin's controversial third term and an ongoing probe into a high-tech fund backed by Surkov.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Surkov's departure should not be seen as related to the investigation at the Skolkovo fund, arguing that the deputy prime minister quit over the government's poor implementation of Putin's election promises.
"It is related to the priority topic and the high-priority task of implementing presidential decrees," Peskov told the Kommersant FM radio.
Surkov's resignation led state Channel One's main news on Wednesday evening, with the newsreader saying he "had been one of the leading players on the Russian political scene".
Channel One linked his resignation to criticism from Putin saying Surkov had admitted 50 presidential decrees "were carried out in an unsatisfactory way."
Surkov declined to talk about his future plans with the media, telling Kommersant that he would comment "when the time is right."
Surkov, 48, was appointed deputy prime minister late December 2011 after being dismissed from the post of first deputy Kremlin chief of staff in a shakeup in the wake of huge opposition protests that shook Russia.
As deputy prime minister, he was essentially sidelined, experts said.
He had "absolutely no influence" over the Kremlin's policies and was ill-suited for his administrative job in the cabinet after a career as a political manager, said political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko.
He had worked in the Kremlin administration from 1999 and was considered the top ideologue of Putin's domestic political strategy who oversaw political parties in parliament, electoral campaigns and the tightly controlled media.
Known for coining the term "sovereign democracy" to describe Russia's tightly controlled political system, Surkov was once called the "Kremlin puppeteer" by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
For the past year and a half Surkov had been tasked with modernising the Russian economy, but Russian investigators are probing a showcase project, the Skolkovo hi-tech fund, where Surkov sits on the supervisory board.
Last month, the powerful Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI in the United States, accused one of the fund's senior executives of paying $750,000 to an opposition lawmaker.
Surkov publicly defended the fund in a speech this month at the London School of Economics, saying that investigators should hold their "artillery fire."
The speech drew a sharp rebuke from the chief spokesman of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, who accused Surkov of discrediting Russian officials while abroad.
"How long would a member of Her Majesty's Cabinet be able to hold on to his post if he, while on a private visit to Moscow, publicly condemned Scotland Yard for performing its direct duties?" Markin said in an acidly-worded article published Tuesday in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily.
When asked to comment on Markin's article, Surkov, known as a media-shy intellectual who himself dabbles in literature, sharply said that he would not comment on "graphomania".
Observers say the highly unusual spat between Surkov and Markin highlights increasing rifts between the powerful Kremlin elites, particularly the security hardliners and more liberal officials that have supported Medvedev.
"His speech in London was taken as public disloyalty to the country," Minchenko told AFP.
Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov said Putin "no longer needed" Surkov as he increasingly listened to the hardliners in his circle.
"Putin took the path of repressions and jailings," the opposition politician wrote on Facebook.
"Surkov cannot help him here. (Alexander) Bastrykin is enough," he said, referring to the head of the Investigative Committee.