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Nothing like a little op-ed page duel to liven up a Tuesday afternoon.

Writing in today's Moscow Times, Anders Umland, author of the book "Soviet and Post-Soviet Society," suggested that President Dmitry Medvedev's Kremlin meeting last week with "Novaya gazeta" editor Dmitry Muratov and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a sign that a liberal thaw might be in the offing:

This meeting could one day be seen as a symbolic and consequential event in Russia's post-Soviet history. Twenty years ago, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a similar rapprochement with Moscow's liberal intellectuals, ushering in the democratization of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. Medvedev's demonstrative support for Novaya Gazeta could be a starting point for a similar transformation.

Opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former State Duma deputy who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy, however, is having none of it:

Many viewed Medvedev's gesture as further proof of his "liberalism" -- a counterbalance to the autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was criticized for his cold-hearted reaction to the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, also a reporter for Novaya Gazeta. But to get the real picture of who Medvedev is, the believers in his liberalism should look past his superficial photo ops and meaningless statements.

Ryzhkov goes on to present recent legislation that Medvedev sent to the State Duma allowing "Kremlin-friendly regional legislatures to remove opposition mayors who were elected by popular vote" as exhibit A:

It is no coincidence that Medvedev has taken aim at the country's mayors. Mayoral elections were the last bastion of direct elections after the Duma cancelled the popular vote for governors in 2005. Independent mayors were the only source of political competition against governors who were loyal to the Kremlin and United Russia. Now one of the few remaining checks and balances against the monopoly on executive power in the regions will be removed. After the law is signed by Medvedev, the power vertical will be extended one step further to reach every mayor in the country.

Ryzhkov notes that another part of the same bill removes a provision allowing political parties not represented in the Duma to compete in parliamentary elections by putting down a cash deposit in lieu of gathering signatures. Election officials often use allegations of falsified signatures to disqualify opposition parties from running in elections.

There appears to be very little consensus out there about the meaning of recent -- and often puzzling -- moves by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler.

Medvedev meets with Muratov, says he wants to water down a bill broadening the definition of espionage, and defies Putin's wish to fire a provincial police official and suddenly Kremlin-watchers -- myself included -- begin to wonder aloud whether the ruling diarchy is about to split and bring the whole house of cards down with it.

My fellow Power Verticalista Robert Coalson suggested in a thoughtful and well-argued post on Friday that what we may be witnessing is the natural emergence of something approximating pluralism.

There certainly appears to be more open disagreement among the Russian elite today than there was just a few months ago. But I sincerely doubt that Putin's authoritarian system of "sovereign democracy" was intended to be a temporary stop on the way to the real thing.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that Putin and his inner circle sought to create a modernized authoritarian system, a Soviet Union without the moribund Communist ideology.

The severity of the economic crisis and the accompanying drop in world oil prices, however, have caught them off guard and thrown a wrench in the works by depriving the Putin regime of a key source of legitimacy -- relative prosperity. As a result, the elite is scrambling and natural fissures, always just below the surface, have become manifest.

We seem to be in a period where the iron discipline of Putin's rule is fading and Russia's elite is becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable (witness Putin's puzzling speech at Davos last week). This is why one day we have Medvedev inviting one of the regime's most ardent critics to the Kremlin, and then creating a mechanism to remove democratically elected mayors the next.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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