In a televised interview Monday night, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov criticized some aspects of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's budget.
This was mildly surprising as Mironov, a native of St. Petersburg, is a longtime and deeply loyal Putin ally. His A Just Russia party has more or less faithfully toed the Kremlin line.
What was very surprising was the fierce response Mironov's comments elicited from Putin's ruling United Russia party. Andrei Isayev, a State Duma deputy from United Russia, said Mironov is nervous because of the economic crisis and "is trying to run from the ship like a rat. But he has forgotten that the ship is not sinking."
Not to be outdone, Nikolai Levichev, the head of the A Just Russia faction in the Duma suggested that Isayev "drink less" so he will "hallucinate less about rats and cockroaches." (I'm not quite sure where he got the cockroach bit from, but never mind.)
Mironov himself then weighed in, saying that his party was going into opposition, and that such attacks were "like a red cloth for a bull."
A group of United Russia Duma deputies, including Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, has since called for Mironov to be removed from his post as head of the upper chamber of parliament.
Now assuming this isn't one of those fake staged conflicts that often happen in Russia (and I don't think it is at this point), this is interesting on a number of levels.
Mironov founded A Just Russia in 2007 with the Kremlin's blessing as a pro-Kremlin center-left party, part of Putin's attempt to co-opt his left flank and establish an obedient domesticated opposition. The Kremlin is trying a similar gambit with the center-right party Right Cause.
But a funny thing seems to have happened along the way. Sparked by the economic crisis, A Just Russia has begun acting slighty less like a fake opposition party and slightly more like the real thing.
In October, when there were widespread allegations of vote rigging in favor of United Russia in local elections, A Just Russia participated in a walkout from the State Duma, joining the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR. (At the time, we at the Power Vertical wondered aloud whether that was a fake conflict as well.)
United Russia and A Just Russia were also at odds over a plan floated by Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov this summer to establish a tightly controlled multi-party system similar to the ones that existed in some Soviet satellites like Communist-era Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
Spooked by the ongoing economic crisis and rising public discontent, part of the elite believed that it was necessary to at least make cosmetic changes in the system to harness the growing anger and keep people off the streets.
A Just Russia, which would clearly gain clout under such a system, backed the plan. But United Russia, which would have had to give up its virtual monopoly on power, balked.
Most analysts say Mironov's latest move is a ploy to win his party votes in the next batch of elections to regional legislatures in March by posing as a true opposition figure. This is probably true, as far as it goes. But the fact that one of Putin's closer allies thinks that there are votes to be won by opposing Putin in public is itself a significant change.
Meanwhile, while some in the elite are debating establishing a watered-down virtual multi-party system, others are actually proposing the real article.
The Institute for Contemporary Development, a think tank with close ties to President Dmitry Medvedev and headed by the irrepressible Igor Yurgens, just released a report titled: "The Political Future: Back to the Constitution."
Among other reforms, the document calls for a true multi-party system, a return to the direct election of governors and Federation Council deputies, lowering the barrier to win seats in the Duma to five percent from the current seven, the abolition of the Interior Ministry and the establishment of a National Criminal Police in its place, and the break-up of the FSB, which would be split into a Counterintelligence Service and Federal Service for Protection of the Constitution.
Not sure whether that is going anywhere, but the rumblings at the top of the system appear more and more real. Add to this mix the massive protests in Kaliningrad this weekend and most serious economic contraction in over a decade, and its hard to avoid the conclusion that things could get very interesting soon.
-- Brian Whitmore