Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's presidential chief of staff is the ultimate "eminence grise," as the French would say -- the man behind the scenes who sits at the center of power but is rarely seen or heard by ordinary people.
That is why Dmitry Medvedev's extensive interview, published today in the Russian magazine "Ekspert," is drawing such attention. It is the first time since his appointment in 2003 that Medvedev has aired his views so publicly.
In Medvedev's words: "If we do not manage to consolidate the elites, Russia may disappear as one state."
Medvedev covers a lot of subjects in his lengthy interview. But the most interesting part by far is his call on Russia's regional elites to unite behind the Kremlin to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. Medvedev says this is the number-one challenge facing the country. Failure to meet it, he says, could bring catastrophe.
In Medvedev's words: "If we do not manage to consolidate the elites, Russia may disappear as one state." By comparison, he says, the disintegration of the Soviet Union would look like a "kindergarten party."
Russia has lately enjoyed relative stability and an economic upswing, so such a scenario seems unlikely. Commentators have been wondering what prompted Medvedev's warning at this particular time.
Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy head of the opposition Yabloko party, sees events outside Russia weighing heavily on the Kremlin - especially the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine:
"Right now, the Kremlin is disoriented," he says. "The series of failures it has suffered in recent times, both in foreign and domestic policy, have created a sense of nervousness. So, this [interview] may be linked to events in Ukraine. The Kremlin sees that it is not capable of controlling the situation and greatly fears a Ukrainian scenario [in Russia]. Of course, these are baseless fears. But every fear acquires a life of its own. And I think the Kremlin has these fears and it is trying to demonstrate that it is ready to meet the challenges confronting Russia."
The recent demonstrations by pensioners and other groups angry at government social-benefits reform showed the Kremlin that popular discontent can be rapidly mobilized in Russia. And events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have demonstrated just how far public anger can go.
Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says this prompts the Kremlin to project unity and demand the same from its regional governors. But he is not convinced by Medvedev's smooth words:
"One can think that it was done to put people at ease, to show that there are no conflicts in the Kremlin about current policies and the country's future course. But the general impression one gets is of a smooth but empty package," says Petrov.
While Medvedev calls for greater unity and preventing instability, many commentators note that it is in fact the Kremlin that has done the most recently to destabilize the country.
The social reforms were just the start. The business community is also upset by what it sees as the government's determined persecution of YUKOS.
Putin himself had to meet with business leaders last month to reassure them that most privatizations will not be threatened, and that the government is committed to creating a predictable climate for entrepreneurs. But speculation still continues that the government may consider renationalizing strategic sectors of the economy.
The government has put through some political reforms, such as the elimination of popularly elected governors and the creation of a new institution -- the Public Chamber -- to assume part of the duties of the current parliament.
But Petrov says these changes have gotten a mixed response and threaten to undo the checks and balances of Russia's young democratic system:
"What is surprising is that the Kremlin as a whole, and Medvedev in part, have done everything to dismantle this system's mechanisms, says Petrov. "Now, according to Medvedev, we are waiting for the Public Chamber to finally function and ensure a dialogue between society and the government. But the fact is that it was parliament that used to play this role and should fulfill this role. Now it has stopped playing this role. But on this point Medvedev stays silent."
Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko says the Kremlin's obsession with centralization - at the expense of democracy - is what in fact poses the greatest threat to Russia's stability and territorial integrity:
"When the Kremlin destroys the institution of federalism, for example, it destroys the only institution that is capable of preserving the territorial integrity of the country," he says. "One gets the alarming feeling that all problems will be resolved by the Kremlin. One can appoint all the smartest people to all the important posts. One can wisely take away the people's right to choose their own government. This speaks to the fact that the Kremlin is pursuing totally inappropriate policies. It is losing feedback from the country."
Mitrokhin says he fears Medvedev's words may be a signal the Kremlin may try to further pressure an already-weak opposition:
"When we are told we all have to unite to prevent the collapse of the country, I see a threat addressed to the opposition. It is another label that is being pinned to the opposition and this label will be that the opposition is contributing to the country's collapse," he says.
Many experts consider the continuing war in Chechnya to be the greatest potential threat to Russia's territorial integrity, especially if violence spreads in the northern Caucasus. But Medvedev made no mention of the war. Instead, he said Russia must address the depopulation of Eastern Siberia and the Far East or risk losing those territories to possible foreign development.