In the weeks since Kudrin made a surprise appearance at Putin’s annual live call-in program with carefully vetted Russian citizens, when he harshly criticized the president’s economic policies, the media has been abuzz with speculation that the former finance minister would replace the hapless Dmitry Medvedev as premier.
"The president has already given the go-ahead for this move in principle," the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported last week, citing an unidentified "informed source in the security services." But, the report continued, "a struggle around the issue is continuing within the regime and Kudrin has many opponents."
For his part, Kudrin claims he’s not interested -- at least not right now.
"I think I have a wealth of experience and abilities, but I do not agree with a number of decisions made by the political leadership," Kudrin said on May 19 at a seminar in Voronezh. "I’m not interested in being a technical prime minister who carries out policies that are alien to me. Maybe after some time the situation will change."
A day later, speaking at an event in the State Duma, Kudrin lashed out at the authorities, saying the country needed to modernize economically and politically or risk stagnation and decay.
"Stagnation is not a one-day story," he said. "Even if we roll our sleeves up now, we'll have to toil three or five years to attain new elements of effectiveness...The political system is lagging behind the challenges of the time, and does not ensure the mechanism for arranging the modernization of the country."
Kudrin added that there is no "internal stimulus" for economic reforms and that the regime needed to overhaul the electoral system and "take steps toward broader representation" in the government and legislature. He said legislation requiring NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" was "by any measure an obvious restriction of civil society."
Kudrin, of course, was careful. He slammed Medvedev’s government. He took shots at the ruling United Russia party. But he did not criticize Putin personally or directly.
Part of this, no doubt, is explained by the two men's long and close friendship, which goes back to when both of them served in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s. But part of it, I think, is also because Kudrin is playing a very delicate game with Putin.
I believe Kudrin is trying in private to convince his old pal that by listening to his siloviki colleagues from the KGB, by cracking down on civil society, by stalling on economic reform, and by abandoning political reform, he is harming the country, destroying his legacy, and missing an opportunity. And he is, ever so carefully, applying pressure in public.
Kudrin is one of the few people in the elite that can dance this way with Putin and get away with it -- and he knows it. Whether this has any chance of success, whether Putin is at all malleable at this stage of the game, is another question.
And Putin also appears to be using his old friend and the speculation surrounding his possible return to politics -- and it has nothing to do with being interested in the types of reform and institution building Kudrin is fond of lecturing about.
No, for Putin it is all about control, about keeping his subordinates in fear and on tenterhooks.
"Putin finds it boring to develop institutions. He prefers to send signals to his subordinates," political analyst Rustem Falyakhov wrote on his blog in Gazeta.ru. "This is why he brought Kudrin back, in the virtual sense. As a bogeyman for the government. If economic growth drops to the level of recession, the Kremlin has a premier ready to take over. Now the government must waste no time sleeping and must be afraid."
If that is indeed Putin’s strategy, it’s all well and good -- until the economic crisis many have been predicting finally comes and he actually needs to fire Medvedev’s government.
And then Putin will have a very important choice to make. And so will Kudrin.
-- Brian Whitmore