Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has always enjoyed something of a privileged place within the Russian elite.
He is believed to be extremely close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an association that goes back to the early post-Soviet period when both served in the government of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Kudrin is rumored to be the only member of the Russian elite allowed to use the familiar "ty" -- reserved for close friends and family -- when addressing Putin in private. (although like most Russian rumors, this one is very difficult to confirm.) This closeness to the national leader has given Kudrin a degree of immunity in Russia's perennial clan battles.
And he has sometimes needed it.
With his insistence on some semblance of sound fiscal management, Kudrin has long been a thorn in the side
of the siloviki clan of security service veterans surrounding Putin, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.
In early 2009, Sechin and other siloviki, hoping to benefit from largesse from the state as the financial crisis took hold, unsuccessfully sought to weaken
-- and potentially oust -- Kudrin.
Today, however, it is Kudrin who has gone on the offensive.
In a speech
at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on February 18, Kudrin said that in order to make difficult and painful economic choices, the government will need a "mandate of trust" from the Russian people:
[It is important] that the elections be fair and honest and that they represent all of the leading political forces of society. Only this will give [the government] the mandate of confidence that is necessary for economic reforms. If a lack of confidence emerges, we will be unable to fulfill our tasks properly.
Russia's political season is about to kick off in earnest, with local elections scheduled for next month, to the State Duma in December, and for the presidency in March 2012.
Speaking to "Kommersant
," Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies, said Kudrin's speech was a direct challenge to the party least likely to benefit from free and fair elections -- the ruling United Russia:
If Kudrin's speech in Krasnoyarsk is any indication, the economic elite is being quietly conditioned into thinking that economic reforms cannot succeed without political changes. United Russia in its turn is always irritated whenever anyone talks politics and particularly political reforms.
And United Russia did not take challenge very well.
"Instead of concentrating on the economic strategy, the finance minister keeps trying to shift responsibility," Sergei Neverov, acting secretary of the Presidium of the General Council of United Russia, told "Kommersant
Neverov went on to call Kudrin's statement "ambiguous" and suggested that the finance minister was "indirectly challenging the existing mandate necessary for economic reform."
Neverov also criticized Kudrin for playing politics when he should be focusing on the economy.
"Nothing prevents Kudrin himself from diligent work to solve the existing financial and economic problems," he said. "Why does he keep postponing decision-making on account of political nuances?" Neverov said.
It isn't exactly new that the technocratic wing of the elite is arguing that political reform is necessary to modernize Russia's economy and the siloviki wing wants to keep things pretty much as they are.
After all, people like Igor Yurgens have been making this argument for a long time now.
But Kudrin rarely weighs in on political matters. And his forceful speech in Krasnoyarsk therefore raise an interesting question: Was he speaking with Putin's blessing?
-- Brian Whitmore