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Russia's Blame Game Heats Up

The first time may have been just a careless slip of the tongue. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has gone and done it again.

During a visit to an aircraft engine-making plant in Moscow, Medvedev issued another not-so-veiled critique of his patron and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, over the government's response to the ongoing economic crisis:

We must confess that at present, the planned measures are being implemented slower than we expected and more importantly, slower than the current circumstances demand.... Many things have been implemented unjustifiably slowly.

Medvedev added that only 30 percent of a $20 billion in a financial aid package announced in October to aid industrial majors and small businesses has been implemented. The president did not single out Putin, or anybody else in the cabinet, by name. But his second critique of the government in less than two weeks has nevertheless raised eyebrows.

On December 29, Medvedev took a subtle swipe at the cabinet, saying the government's anticrisis plan was "well balanced but not ideal" -- a comment that was widely seen at the time as a dig at Putin.

Industrial production in Russia's fell 11.1 percent in November compared to October. From January to November 2008, it fell 2.7 percent from the same period the previous year, according to the Industry and Trade Ministry. The stock market has fallen by nearly 70 percent in 2008 and the ruble has lost 17 percent of its value.

As the economy continues to nosedive, more and more observers say they expect to see increased instability and sharper schisms among Russia's political elite as the blame game intensifies.

In a new report, the Eurasia Group Consultancy said GDP growth was "unlikely" to be more than 3 percent in 2009 and that negative growth was a real possibility. The report warned that "against this gloomy economic backdrop, social unrest is a real possibility," particularly in industrial towns in Siberia and the Urals region.

At his new blog, The Call, over at Foreign Policy, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer noted the demonstrations that have already taken place in 30 Russian cities over higher import tariffs, and speculated about where this all might be headed:

Russians have seen this kind of hardship before, but only in the context of a very different kind of economic system. Where could this go? The Russian government won't likely have much tolerance for dissent. And with the highest levels of anti-Americanism (and, in many quarters, of broader xenophobia) of any significant emerging market in the world, this has the potential to make security a serious concern -- and to lead to boycotts of western goods. The Obama administration is not likely to keep quiet during a crackdown in Russia. That's part of why Russia's relations with the United States and many European countries are likely to get even worse in 2009.

Most observers expect the crisis to spark serious social tremors sometime in the spring, and as I have written here, the authorities have been busy preparing the judicial mechanisms to deal with it harshly.

The question remains, however, whether the elite will remain united about what to do about serious civil unrest if and when it materializes. A united elite would almost certainly lead to a brutal crackdown. A divided elite, however, could result in political chaos with unpredictable consequences.

-- 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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