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The Power Vertical

Putin's Game And Kudrin’s Choice

Who is using whom?
Who is using whom?
If Russian President Vladimir Putin ever actually appoints Aleksei Kudrin as his prime minister, we’ll know that one of two things happened: Either Putin decided to radically change course or Kudrin shamelessly sold out.

In the weeks since Kudrin made a surprise appearance at Putin’s annual live call-in program with carefully vetted Russian citizens, when he harshly criticized the president’s economic policies, the media has been abuzz with speculation that the former finance minister would replace the hapless Dmitry Medvedev as premier. 

"The president has already given the go-ahead for this move in principle," the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported last week, citing an unidentified "informed source in the security services." But, the report continued, "a struggle around the issue is continuing within the regime and Kudrin has many opponents."

For his part, Kudrin claims he’s not interested -- at least not right now.

"I think I have a wealth of experience and abilities, but I do not agree with a number of decisions made by the political leadership," Kudrin said on May 19 at a seminar in Voronezh. "I’m not interested in being a technical prime minister who carries out policies that are alien to me. Maybe after some time the situation will change."

A day later, speaking at an event in the State Duma, Kudrin lashed out at the authorities, saying the country needed to modernize economically and politically or risk stagnation and decay.

"Stagnation is not a one-day story," he said. "Even if we roll our sleeves up now, we'll have to toil three or five years to attain new elements of effectiveness...The political system is lagging behind the challenges of the time, and does not ensure the mechanism for arranging the modernization of the country."

Kudrin added that there is no "internal stimulus" for economic reforms and that the regime needed to overhaul the electoral system and "take steps toward broader representation" in the government and legislature. He said legislation requiring NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" was "by any measure an obvious restriction of civil society."

Kudrin, of course, was careful. He slammed Medvedev’s government. He took shots at the ruling United Russia party. But he did not criticize Putin personally or directly.

Part of this, no doubt, is explained by the two men's long and close friendship, which goes back to when both of them served in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s. But part of it, I think, is also because Kudrin is playing a very delicate game with Putin.

I believe Kudrin is trying in private to convince his old pal that by listening to his siloviki colleagues from the KGB, by cracking down on civil society, by stalling on economic reform, and by abandoning political reform, he is harming the country, destroying his legacy, and missing an opportunity. And he is, ever so carefully, applying pressure in public.

Kudrin is one of the few people in the elite that can dance this way with Putin and get away with it -- and he knows it.  Whether this has any chance of success, whether Putin is at all malleable at this stage of the game, is another question.

And Putin also appears to be using his old friend and the speculation surrounding his possible return to politics -- and it has nothing to do with being interested in the types of reform and institution building Kudrin is fond of lecturing about.

No, for Putin it is all about control, about keeping his subordinates in fear and on tenterhooks.

"Putin finds it boring to develop institutions. He prefers to send signals to his subordinates," political analyst Rustem Falyakhov wrote on his blog in "This is why he brought Kudrin back, in the virtual sense. As a bogeyman for the government. If economic growth drops to the level of recession, the Kremlin has a premier ready to take over. Now the government must waste no time sleeping and must be afraid."

If that is indeed Putin’s strategy, it’s all well and good -- until the economic crisis many have been predicting finally comes and he actually needs to fire Medvedev’s government.

And then Putin will have a very important choice to make. And so will Kudrin.

-- Brian Whitmore


This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Rebecca from: US
May 20, 2013 20:08
I feel like Kudrin is Putin's last choice as PM. In his Q&A he made it pretty clear that Kudrin lacks basic social and managerial skills. To Putin, Kudrin thinks only in numbers and forgets about human beings and emotions. He is also a pretty non-complacent person, and not a typical Russian politician. He has no problem standing up to Putin. I don't think Putin would like having to deal with such a trouble making PM on a regular basis. I feel like Kudrin really wants to be PM. I think he was more upset over the fact he wasn't selected as PM rather than seeing Putin come back to power. But I don't think he'll ever compromise with Putin for it. He's never backed down before so I can't imagine him starting now. If he does get the position it will most definitely be in his terms.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
May 20, 2013 21:43
How is it possible that such a discussion could still be going on? Didn't we learn ANYTHING from the Medvedev years? All these EXACT same things were said about Medvedev, and what happened? All had egg on their faces when Putin revealed Medvedev was a sham and retook formal power.

Are we REALLY going to go down that same road ALL OVER AGAIN, this time with Kudrin? REALLY?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME!

by: peter from: queens ny
May 22, 2013 16:13
the lead clown surrounds himself with chimps and mongrels same circus act ,same results. Dont worry mr big 60 dollar oil is around the corner and russia capitulates like it has always done in the past. LOL.

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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