27 Sep 2011
In light of Aleksei Kudrin’s departure from the Ministry of Finance yesterday, I’m posting this follow-up to my initial thoughts about Russia after Putin’s return.
Before Medvedev spit hellfire and brimstone at Kudrin on Monday, Igor Shuvalov seemed convinced that Russia’s long-time Finance Minister would be migrating from the ‘government’ to the ‘Kremlin,’ just as soon as the 2012 presidential elections were finished. (Incidentally, Shuvalov has now been saddled with overseeing Russia’s financial system, so perhaps he was speaking out of an anticipated need for help.)
After everything that happened yesterday, we’re left to wonder: did the timetable simply move up, allowing Kudrin to take a brief vacation before Putin appoints him to head the Central Bank, or has Russia’s ex-Minister of Finance permanently severed his ties with the establishment? Many analysts seem to agree that Kudrin doesn’t intend to join the opposition (though dissidents like Boris Nemtsov are suddenly saying nice things about him).
Kudrin’s public letter today, where he further explained his exit, was a fairly restrained follow-up to his initial criticism of Medvedev’s poor financial discipline (which, by the way, directly implicates Putin, who is the obvious ‘decider’ when it comes to defense and social spending, as well as taxes). The only snag was the bit where he described Pravoe Delo as an “artificial project that discredits liberal-democratic ideas.” An anonymous source in the Kremlin quickly fired back that, for all its artificiality, Kudrin seriously considered leading Pravoe Delo, and that his new reevaluation of the party is just sour grapes.
Medvedev’s obvious impatience with Kudrin aside, Putin appears to be supporting his tandem partner in this cadre shift, having been present at the presidential order that ousted Kudrin, and being active now in replacing him with Anton Siluanov.
Add this to the bad blood Kudrin has worked up with the leaders of United Russia, and it’s hard not to wonder if he’s really burned his last bridge.
That said, Putin’s cooperation with Medvedev’s move (if it really was the President’s initiative) has amounted mostly to silent consent. (Readers, please correct me, if there’s some record of Putin openly denouncing Kudrin’s actions.) Some commentators have compared this to Viktor Cherkesov’s October 2007 article in Kommersant about clan war in the federal police wings, where he warned that Russia’s national security was at stake. On that occasion, Putin responded ten days later, chastising Cherkesov for airing the state’s dirty laundry in public. That was the beginning of the end for him.
In the day between Kudrin’s remarks in DC and Medvedev’s firing him, I still expected Kudrin to eventually rise to take the place of Medvedev as Russia’s chief reformer-within-the-system. Now I’m not so sure. If Kudrin is released from public service as an oppositionist-seeming malcontent, how simple will it be to bring him back in 2012? How possible would it even be?
I’ll float a few interpretations (that, if my betting record is any predictor, will all prove wrong):
- Kudrin doesn’t have the patience he did in 2004. Even then he wanted to be Prime Minister, but swallowed his pride when Fradkov was tapped for the job. It’s seven years later now, and he’s unwilling to watch another nincompoop waltz in and give him orders.
- Kudrin’s remarks obviously offended Medvedev, but Putin also thought them too inappropriate to go unpunished. If Kudrin continues speaking ill of managed democracy and Kremlin projects like Pravoe Delo, Putin will have no choice but to jettison him from any future plans, near or distant.
- Putin and possibly the reformist groups that once placed so much hope in Medvedev are planning to facilitate Kudrin’s migration to some new post that reports directly to Putin, once he’s returned to the presidency. Kudrin’s break with Medvedev was a necessary step in this transition. (Timing was perhaps linked to the 2012 presidential announcement, which curiously came in September, rather than sometime after the December Duma elections.) This is essentially what I expected before he was fired, but it’s still a possibility. I’m working on the assumption that the establishment needs а counterweight to the chekist factions, who generally promote unmitigated statism, weak legal institutions, and ‘irresponsible’ fiscal policy.
If Kudrin continues to criticize the government — and almost certainly if his attacks ever mention Putin by name — one can assume that he truly is ‘out.’ In that case, the corollary would be that the ruling Tandem expects Medvedev to continue functioning as the leader of the system’s liberals. When I wrote just a few days ago, in the immediate wake of Medvedev’s embarrassing speech at the United Russia convention, it was inconceivable to me that this deflated excuse for a president could ever hope to maintain his potency as a spokesperson for reforms. Now that Kudrin’s future has slipped into such a fog, I wonder if the civiliki will simply have to take what they can get?