At first glance, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny make for odd allies.
The cerebral, urbane, and pro-Western Kudrin has long been a close friend of President Vladimir Putin. He spent most of his career in the halls of power overseeing and facilitating Russia's macroeconomic stability -- and tolerating a mindboggling amount of graft in the process.
The firebrand Navalny made his name as an anticorruption blogger with a nationalist bent who made it his mission to expose that graft. He has spent the past year as one of the Kremlin's fiercest opponents, and wears the numerous nights he has spent in police detention as a badge of honor.
But despite these differences, there have been signs in recent weeks that these two very different Alekseis may be moving toward working together to forge a link between the opposition and the technocratic wing of the elite, which is uncomfortable with the Kremlin's current hard-line posture.
This week, on the first anniversary of the disputed parliamentary elections that set off a wave of protests that made Navalny a household name, Kudrin called on the Kremlin to stop using "confrontational rhetoric" toward its opponents.
In a report posted on the website of his think tank, the Civic Initiatives Committee, Kudrin and his co-authors wrote that such actions "only increase the antigovernment attitude of the middle class, without which the country’s development isn’t possible."
The report, titled "2012: The Authorities and Our Common Risks
," also criticizes Russia's rulers for engaging in what it calls "imitation politics" and says only a real dialogue between the Kremlin and the emerging civil society can prevent the country from sliding into economic and political stagnation -- or worse.
For the past year, Kudrin, who resigned as finance minister in September 2011, has been trying to position himself as the man in the middle
of Russia's intractable political standoff -- the honest broker who could foster a true dialogue among the authorities, the opposition, and newly politically active segments of society.
Having seen the system work from the inside, he understands that Russia is dangerously dependent on oil and gas, that current levels of corruption are unsustainable, and that in order for the economy to diversify and modernize, the political system will need to become more pluralistic. But he has also stressed that change needs to be evolutionary.
And recently, Kudrin appears to be getting a major assist from Navalny.
The anticorruption blogger has been using his influence on the opposition's Coordinating Council
to strengthen the hand of moderates who seek to negotiate with the authorities and reform the political system and weaken radical elements who want nothing short of regime change.
Navalny's chief ally in this effort has been socialite-turned-social-activist Ksenia Sobchak, with whom he has teamed up
to form a powerful super faction on the council.
The Navalny-Sobchak alliance was instrumental in providing a critical link between Kudrin and the Coordinating Council
. The two successfully backed a controversial move
to get Dmitry Nekrasov, a close ally of the former finance minister, named the committee's executive secretary.
Nekrasov, a former Kremlin aide who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the same council, is the coordinator of Kudrin's think tank. Navalny praised him
as "sincere, sensible," and "capable." He also lauded the work of Kudrin's Civic Initiatives Committee.
After Nekrasov's appointment was approved, opposition journalist and council member Oleg Kashin fiercely criticized Navalny on Twitter
Despite their obvious differences, Kudrin and Navalny also complement each other. Kudrin has cache with the authorities that Navalny lacks. Navalny has street cred with the opposition that Kudrin, despite his apparent democratic epiphany, will probably never have.
It's not clear where -- if anywhere -- this is going. But a true meeting of the minds between Aleksei and Aleksei could be a vital step toward a development that I've been watching for: an overt alliance between the technocratic wing of the elite that understands that Russia's political system needs to open up to accommodate a changing society, on the one hand, and the moderate wing of the opposition that is seeking evolutionary change on the other.
-- Brian Whitmore