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A Kremlin Sparring Match

Medvedev (R) and Dvorkovich at the presidential residence in Gorki
Medvedev (R) and Dvorkovich at the presidential residence in Gorki
A top advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev thinks Russia is in trouble.

Arkady Dvorkovich, the head of the Kremlin's experts directorate, told the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on February 28 that the current elite is not equipped to handle the economic crisis. Here's the money quote, as reported by "Nezavisimaya gazeta":

The present elite, which is above all bureaucratic, must be replaced by a new elite which will be more open to society. This in itself could become a real factor in the growth of the Russian economy. The readiness of the regime, as well as of society, to live through a lengthy period of crisis is poor.

Dvorkovich is no lightweight. He has served in government in various capacities since 1994, including a stint as deputy economics minister. In 2003, the U.S. magazine "Business Week" named him one of its "Stars of Europe" for his role in crafting the economic reforms Putin implemented in his first term.

Dvorkovich wasn't alone in his assessment of Russia's condition. The forum's host, Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin, also raised the alarm, saying: "Even Russia's strongest regions only have enough reserves to last a month - and unless some sort of concrete measures are taken, the situation will become critical."

Dvorkovich's remarks came just weeks after Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development and an advisor to Medvedev, called for expanded civil liberties as the crisis deepens:

The social contract consisted of limiting of civil rights in exchange for economic well-being. At the current moment, economic well-being is shrinking. Correspondingly, civil rights should expand. It’s just simple logic.

Days after Dvorkovich's remarks, Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regimes unofficial ideologist who coined the term "sovereign democracy," fired back. Here are his comments from the strategy 2020 forum of the ruling Unified Russia party on March 2:

The system is working, it will cope with the crisis and get through it. If we had entered this zone of turbulence in a more-loosened condition, I assure you, the damage the state and society would have suffered would have been much greater...The crisis is still in its early stages in our country, but we are already prepared to say that we are prepared to revise our institutions and - I have read this myself! - rethink our values.

Surkov also ridiculed Yurgens' claim that Russia's social contract was breaking down:

The authorities have been handing out petrodollars, feeding everyone, while in return society has been waiving its rights and
freedoms. Now that petrodollars have dried up, it has suddenly come back to people's minds - 'give us our freedom'.

You can watch a video of Surkov's remarks (in Russian) here, here, or here (one of the links is bound to work).

This little verbal sparring match came as Medvedev is reportedly considering major personnel changes in the ruling elite, is presenting a softer public image, and is locking horns with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and the "siloviki" clan of security service veterans.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, told "RBK Daily" that the Dvorkovich-Surkov debate is a sign of emerging pluralism in the Kremlin:

Surkov's speech is evidence that there are two wings within the Kremlin administration - let's call them the pessimists and the conservatives. A debate is under way between them, and this is entirely normal.

This makes sense if one believes, as I do, that Russia is run by a collective leadership -- a sort of modernized Politburo that makes decisions by consensus. Kryshtanovskaya's characterization of "pessimists" and "conservatives" is also spot (rather than the often misused "liberal" tag that has too often been assigned to Medvedev's allies).

Unless this is all an elaborately organized show (which, incidentally is something Surkov excels at), there appears to be a genuine debate about some pretty fundamental issues going on in the corridors of power. The elite is trying to figure out a way to survive the gathering storm with its power and privilege intact.

But we still haven't heard from the most important voice of all, that of Vladimir Putin.

-- 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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