Apparently, that time has passed.
In a combative address to parliament on Wednesday, Putin warned against Western economic and military influence, soothed farmers, blue-collar workers, and retirees with promises of generous social benefits, boasted that Russia has weathered its financial crisis, and mocked the United States for its budget deficit. Pundits said the speech looked like the start of a presidential campaign.
But one of the key architects of Putin's rise to power over a decade ago, was not impressed.
Here's political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Politics Foundation, speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta":
Control is the central axis of Putin's model, control and support for the socially vulnerable strata of society to keep them off the streets. By and large, this is a model of an impoverished collective farm that keeps stumbling along and refuses to give up for good...
He never said a word about the truly catastrophic state of affairs with our legal institutions that are distrusted throughout the country... and this distrust extends to his whole program...
Putin's concept has nothing to do with modernization. It calls for a technical rennovation of the existing economy. What was regarded as a means of survival five years ago is being granted the status of an ideal nowadays. That's dangerous.
There was a time, not so long ago, when policy differences among top Russia officials were not aired in public.
Apparently, that time has passed as well.
At a meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs at the government's headquarters, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shantalov sparred openly with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (who recently stepped down as Rosneft's CEO to comply with a new policy initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev) over whether a major oil filed will be stripped of tax breaks it had been receiving.
Shantov said yes. Sechin said no.
Here's how Reuters reported the exchange:
But officials have decided to remove its duty breaks, starting from May as crude prices have shot to their highest since 2008. Analysts estimate an extension of the duty exemption for Vankor would have saved Rosneft $3 billion a year.
At the meeting Sechin stepped in to contradict Shatalov.
'Vladimir Vladimirovich, we didn't cancel it, it's just we don't apply it at a time of high oil prices,' Sechin told Putin, who chuckled and praised the difference of views without favouring one side or the other.
'You see, how different the opinions are in our government. In fact, it's good, it speaks volumes that in government there are always people who speak the same language as you," he told the businessmen at the meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP).'
There was a time, not so long ago, when top government officials wouldn't dare contradict Putin following a major speech.
But after Putin warned lawmakers of Western influences on Wednesday, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin spoke out on Thursday in favor of greater democracy and a freer flow of ideas:
"Political competition is a necessary element for properly structuring any economy," Kudrin said in remarks at the RSPP meeting, as reported by the Wall Street Journal's William Mauldin. "We would like to see more ideas and more political competition in the development of these ideas."
Whatever will happen with the tandem, whatever will happen in the 2011-12 election season, whoever will be president-elect a year from now, one thing is certain: the Russian elite is more divided than it has been since the advent of Putin over a decade ago.
And that makes for a very fluid, and very unpredictable, situation.
-- Brian Whitmore