Back in February, the senior adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev rattled the Moscow political elite when he told the "New York Times" that Russia's implicit social contract -- in which citizens sacrificed political freedoms in exchange for rising living standards -- was being rendered null and void by the deepening economic crisis. Political liberalization, he said, was necessary if Russia was to emerge from the deepening recession.
Defenders of the current system wasted no time pushing back. Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, ridiculed Yurgen's comments and insisted that "the system is working."
Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin analyst who heads the Effective Politics Foundation, went as far as to suggest that comments likeYurgen's were an indication that a small "pro-crisis party" is lurking inside the Russian elite and might be plotting "a new little coup.
Apparently the push back has not deterred Yurgens.
In an interview with Britain's "Daily Telegraph" published today, Yurgens took aim at the authoritarian system of "sovereign democracy," saying it was holding back Russia's development:
Other officials have echoed Yurgen's views in recent months, including Arkady Dvorkovich, the head of the Kremlin's experts directorate.
The ongoing public debate has naturally raised questions about whether Medvedev is trying to break free from the influence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler and the president's political mentor and patron. Those speaking out against the current system, after all, tend to be close to Medvedev, while those defending it are almost always members of Putin's inner circle.
Political scientist Yuri Chernyshov told Newsweek's Russian-language edition (the article was translated and re-printed in the English-language magazine as well) that "Medvedev was a puppet, but now he seems to be doing things that may not please Putin."
The question of whether or not there is a split between Putin and Medvedev has been the source of endless speculation on this blog and elsewhere. But what is becoming very clear is that there is a growing chasm between their respective teams.
Citing unidentified officials, Newsweek also reported that normal channels of bureaucratic communications between Medvedev's Kremlin and Putin's government have all but stalled:
In his "Daily Telegraph" interview, Yurgens says it is clear to him that a battle is going on among the top strata of the elite, but that its true contours remain largely hidden. "There is a struggle under way, although it is not very clear what is going on," he said. "In a society that was more transparent, which had more democratic mechanisms and a viable opposition, we would have a better idea of what is going on."
-- Brian Whitmore