Russian politics: is Kudrin the cure for Putin’s ‘tandem malaise’?

Are we witnessing the death throes of Russia’s ruling tandem? Since last September, when their (apparently) joint decision to swap posts was announced, speculation has been rife about who President Putin’s next prime minister will be. He made a public promise to Medvedev, but now another infinitely more acceptable candidate is positioning himself for the job, says Daniil Kotsyubinsky

Vladimir Putin may have won the presidential election, but the Kremlin is still in the acute phase of its political crisis. The internet is awash with anti-Putin material; mayoral elections in various Russian cities are being won by ‘United Russia’ opponents and the opposition is gearing up for the March of Millions very soon….

Will the Kremlin be able to regain lost political stability or is Pandora’s box now open to allow the forces streaming from it to bring down the Putinesque vertical of power?  Opinions vary.

Tandem malaise

What is, however, clear is that there’s no way Putin and his team will be able to even begin emerging from the systemic political crisis until, at the very least, the factor that provoked the political crash of autumn/winter 2011, probably most accurately described as ‘tandem malaise’, has been eliminated.

‘Tandem malaise’ is essentially the result of Russian society’s proven unwillingness to recognise as legitimate the carnival ‘two emperor’ system, one with nominal, and one with real, power, that it was offered in 2008. Dissatisfaction with this quasi-constitutional political model increased throughout Dmitry Medvedev’s powerless presidency and Vladimir Putin’s all-powerful premiership.

‘Tandem malaise’ is essentially the result of Russian society’s proven unwillingness to recognise as legitimate the carnival ‘two emperor’ system, one with nominal, and one with real, power, that it was offered in 2008.'

When Putin and Medvedev publicly announced their upcoming ‘castling’ [chess term – job swap] at the ‘United Russia’ party conference on 24 September 2011, it was obvious that the tandem game would be continuing into the future and Russia was gripped by an unprecedented political crisis.

After the flaring of discontent provoked by the news of the ‘swap’, there were forceful protests against electoral rigging of first the parliamentary, then the presidential, election.  This was a first for the long years of ‘managed democracy’: it brought about a sharp decline in Putin’s authority and, consequently, partial de-legitimisation of the personalised power regime obtaining in Russia (more detail in my previous article).

After these events, a purely mechanical ‘job amputation’ of Medvedev will clearly be insufficient and anyway the Kremlin has to convince at least a part of the anti-government lobby that the long-awaited period of reform and ‘dialogue with the government’ is really about to start.

The Committee of Civic Initiatives

In the context of the Kremlin’s imminent release from the ‘tandem malaise’ and the transition to new reforming policies, it is not difficult to see where the recently created Committee of Civic Initiatives is coming from. Headed by the ex- Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin, its members represent the so-called liberal right wing. These include the ex co-chair of the SPS [Union of Right Forces] Leonid Gozman (Anatoly Chubais' right hand man]; the head of the support organisation for SMEs 'OPORA Russia', Sergei Borisov; economists Yevgeny Yasin, IgorYurgens and Evgeny Gontmakher (the last two worked on President Medvedev's 'modernisation concept' at one time); the head of the National Anti-corruption Committee Kirill Kabanov;  political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin; TV journalists Vladimir Pozner and Nikolai Svanidze and the film producer Yuly Gusman.

Kudrin_site

Aleksey Kudrin's personal website www.akudrin.ru is the best source of information about the activities of the Civic Initiatives Committee.

Officially, Kudrin's committee is a strictly non-government organisation, in no way connected with Kremlin plans and calculations, though the Committee's activities and the fact that its leader is someone to whom Putin still refers as 'a member of my team' make this rather less than convincing. This is probably why, in one of his recent TV interviews [in Russian], Leonid Gozman embarked on justifications without even waiting for a direct question. He said 'The Committee was certainly not planned as a Putin think tank!  We regard ourselves as being in a dialogue with society, rather than with the authorities!'  Later he even forecast that Putin's regime would soon collapse: 'In a way the Putin regime has already come to an end, because even if he remains in power for a long time, I really don't think he will be there for six years, but for less, and it's another Putin, another life.  The old life has gone for ever and there's no going back to it! More importantly, what now?'

At first glance, Aleksey Kudrin goes even further than Gozman. He said that his Committee will not only be 'putting alternative methods of solving political, economic and social problems into the public domain for discussion and expert advice ', but also 'openly opposing the government.'

Kudrin for Prime Minister?

However, further clarification makes it clear that the Committee will not be engaging in any opposition activities. Kudrin has no need of the Committee for Civic Initiative to attack or criticise Putin. He wants to secure the support of the newly-elected president, and to get back into the government. 'I consider that at some point I could go back into government to carry out a clearly-defined programme of reforms, including a dialogue with that section of society which is active and whose ideas I share…That is what the political process is..Theoretically under Putin this is a possibility. If Putin will turn that way a bit, then I think we could work together…'

Kudrin recently wrote a comprehensive article in the journal 'Economic Policy', entitled 'What do we expect from the government?' and laying out ten basic areas of work for the future cabinet of ministers. The very fact of its publication and the content of the article make this in essence his application for the post of prime minister. It is a 'bracing memorandum' (typical for the Putin era) - restrained, in declarative-modernising mode, containing nothing really new, except possibly the original idea of a 'partnership' between government and society. In this context Kudrin regards the partnership model as a situation whereby society understands and approves government policies aimed at a systemic tightening of belts in the public sector.

This would suit Putin

The fact that it's Aleksey Kudrin who is setting his cap at the post of prime minister and that his initiative is most probably tacitly approved by Putin seems completely logical, as his hypothetical candidature combines several features that would suit Putin, especially in today's crisis conditions.

1. Kudrin was Minister of Finance for 11 years and one of Putin's most loyal and reliable ministers. Putin continues to trust him, even after he resigned from his post, and comments on him very favourably, thanking him for the 'firmness, responsibility and probity' he displayed during the crisis.

2. Throughout his 11 years in post Kudrin managed to preserve his reputation as a liberal within the system, not unsympathetic to the idea of common-sense reforms, and respected in the West – Euromoney magazine named him Finance Minister of the year 2010 – so he is positively regarded by some of the anti-government lobby.

'Officially, Kudrin's committee is a strictly non-government organisation, in no way connected with Kremlin plans and calculations, though the Committee's activities and the fact that its leader is someone to whom Putin still refers as 'a member of my team' make this rather less than convincing.'

He cemented his image as a principled reformer still further by resigning immediately after the announcement of the imminent job swap, saying that he would not work under Medvedev, because he leans toward populist financial policies. Kudrin made no reference at all to Medvedev's total absence of independent policies during his four years as president and the fact that his populism was fully cleared with Putin. Nevertheless, many people regarded Kudrin's resignation as a bold and principled step. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that some time later he was dispatched as a parliamentary representative to the mass protest demonstrations in Moscow and even addressed one of their rallies.

3. Kudrin represents the particular kind of right-wing liberal which has been cultivated by the Kremlin, whose main task is to deploy scientific and economic rhetoric to mask hardline financial policies aimed at minimising the state's public sector liabilities to society. This is particularly relevant for the Kremlin at the moment, because the promises Putin and Medvedev made to curry favour with the voters during the two election campaigns would be too heavy a drain on public finances.

Obstacles to Kudrin's appointment

The Kremlin is thus faced with the two jobs of overcoming the 'tandem malaise' as quickly as possible and putting together the kind of government which will secure the support of even a part of society. In this situation it would be difficult to think of a better candidate for the post of prime minister than Aleksey Kudrin.

But what, then, is the point of the Committee of Civic Initiatives? As soon as Putin was elected, he could simply have issued his first decree appointing Kudrin prime minister.  Why didn't he?

Medvedev_Putin_May

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev turned up together at the 1 May demonstration in Moscow as if to demonstrate that their tandem is alive and well, but many Russian experts don't believe it has any future (photo: http://premier.gov.ru)

He couldn't. On 24 September 2011 he had publicly promised that, when he became president, he would make Dmitry Medvedev prime minister, so he would have broken the current regime's unwritten rule that anything said in public by the Leader is law for the system. Life can, of course, make amendments to any spoken words, but breaking a publicly-uttered promise without any explanation or justification, 'just like that' - Putin couldn't do it.

If his intention was simply not to abide by the promise he rashly made Medvedev (which is unlikely) or to appoint him prime minister and then dismiss him soon after (which is more likely), he will need to have very serious grounds for so doing.

How can they be overcome?

It is a fair assumption that the Committee of Civic Initiatives has been set up precisely to furnish the justification Putin so badly needs. 

The Kudrin committee thus has a dual purpose.

First, to mount a critical attack on Medvedev by portraying him as an ineffectual populist politician, incapable of steering Russia between the implacably approaching financial and economic Scilla and Charybdis (which is what Kudrin has being saying for the past few months).

Second, to develop a serious government programme which would enable Putin after some time to take the executive decision to exchange Medvedev for Kudrin. Some of the Committee members are former Medvedev economic advisers and the Kudrin programme differs very little in spirit or content from similar Medvedev era documents, but this appears not to worry any of the players in this complex Byzantine interlude at all.

At some point Medvedev could possibly 'accept the just criticism of the serious reforming economists' on Kudrin's committee and ask the president to release him from the post of prime minister ahead of schedule…

That Medvedev will finally be replaced by none other than Kudrin seems today axiomatic, though Putin's Byzantium could very well come up with an even more unexpected scenario. 

'There are actually no grounds for assuming that the 'Kudrin stabilisation' – if it actually happens – will be at all successful in achieving real modernisation in Russia.'

But, one way or another, the functions of 'the Moor doing his duty' [Schiller The Genoese Conspiracy] will almost certainly be allocated to the Committee of Civic Initiatives, whatever developments in the nomenklatura this brings about.

What then?

If this happens, the Kremlin will have a chance to clamber out of the whirlpool of political crisis, even if only temporarily. There are actually no grounds for assuming that the 'Kudrin stabilisation' – if it actually happens – will be at all successful in achieving real modernisation in Russia. In fact, there is nothing in 'Kudrin's modernisation' which would help the country out of its archaic, imperial power vertical towards a liberal democracy. 

So, whether or not the Kremlin manages to cure itself of the tandem malaise, it will be unable to rid itself of the main sickness inherent in all corrupt authoritarian regimes: the fatal increase of unpopularity to which there is, as a rule, only one conclusion – a velvet revolution.