Writing in today's Moscow Times, Anders Umland, author of the book "Soviet and Post-Soviet Society," suggested that President Dmitry Medvedev's Kremlin meeting last week with "Novaya gazeta" editor Dmitry Muratov and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a sign that a liberal thaw might be in the offing:
Opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former State Duma deputy who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy, however, is having none of it:
Ryzhkov goes on to present recent legislation that Medvedev sent to the State Duma allowing "Kremlin-friendly regional legislatures to remove opposition mayors who were elected by popular vote" as exhibit A:
Ryzhkov notes that another part of the same bill removes a provision allowing political parties not represented in the Duma to compete in parliamentary elections by putting down a cash deposit in lieu of gathering signatures. Election officials often use allegations of falsified signatures to disqualify opposition parties from running in elections.
There appears to be very little consensus out there about the meaning of recent -- and often puzzling -- moves by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler.
Medvedev meets with Muratov, says he wants to water down a bill broadening the definition of espionage, and defies Putin's wish to fire a provincial police official and suddenly Kremlin-watchers -- myself included -- begin to wonder aloud whether the ruling diarchy is about to split and bring the whole house of cards down with it.
My fellow Power Verticalista Robert Coalson suggested in a thoughtful and well-argued post on Friday that what we may be witnessing is the natural emergence of something approximating pluralism.
There certainly appears to be more open disagreement among the Russian elite today than there was just a few months ago. But I sincerely doubt that Putin's authoritarian system of "sovereign democracy" was intended to be a temporary stop on the way to the real thing.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that Putin and his inner circle sought to create a modernized authoritarian system, a Soviet Union without the moribund Communist ideology.
The severity of the economic crisis and the accompanying drop in world oil prices, however, have caught them off guard and thrown a wrench in the works by depriving the Putin regime of a key source of legitimacy -- relative prosperity. As a result, the elite is scrambling and natural fissures, always just below the surface, have become manifest.
We seem to be in a period where the iron discipline of Putin's rule is fading and Russia's elite is becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable (witness Putin's puzzling speech at Davos last week). This is why one day we have Medvedev inviting one of the regime's most ardent critics to the Kremlin, and then creating a mechanism to remove democratically elected mayors the next.
-- Brian Whitmore