Amid all the showmanship and bravado on display during Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's live call-in program yesterday, there also came a rare moment of sincerity.
This happened when Putin was asked to comment on former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who resigned under pressure following a public spat with President Dmitry Medvedev in late September.
"Aleksei Leonidovich Kudrin has not left my team," Putin said. "We are old comrades, he's my friend. He did a lot for the country. I'm proud that this man worked in my government. Such people are needed and will be needed in current and future governments."
On one hand, Putin's comments can be viewed as a subtle dig at President Dmitry Medvedev, who demanded Kudrin's resignation after the finance minister criticized his plans to increase military spending by $65 billion over the next three years. (The rare public dust-up came just days after Putin announced that he intended to return to the Kremlin next year and planed to make Medvedev his prime minister. Kudrin was reportedly not happy about the job swap.)
But there is probably more to it than that. The prime minister's remarks also a sign that Kudrin remains influential despite his resignation three months ago.
It's not clear whether Kudrin will return to serve in the government -- a move that would certainly cheer nervous investors -- or go on to form a liberal political party.
But he remains a player -- and one who is not going to be shy about speaking his mind about Russia's current political impasse.
In comments to reporters hours after Putin spoke on Thursday, Kudrin made it clear that at the moment his sympathies lie with the tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protestors who took to the streets on December 10 to protest electoral fraud -- and plan to do so again on December 24.
"I myself support honest elections," Kudrin told reporters. "The elections just held took place with major violations and we have not yet heard an adequate answer from those responsible, and in general from the powers that be."
He also took Putin to task for disparaging remarks he made about the mass demonstrations. "I don't agree with this attitude towards the protesters...there is no need to provoke them," Kudrin told reporters.
Kudrin is the most senior member of Putin's team thus far to come out so strongly -- and publicly -- in favor of the protestors. And he is in a prety unique position to make his voice heard.
Putin and Kudrin are indeed very close friends, dating back to their time working together in the St. Petersburg government under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s. (As I have noted on numerous occasions, Kudrin is widely rumored to be the only official allowed to use the familiar "ty" form with Putin in private conversations.)
In addition to personal affinity, Putin also has a great deal of professional respect for Kudrin, whom he tasked with keeping Russia's fiscal house in order while he consolidated political power and strengthened his power vertical.
Kudrin's vigilance and insistence on fiscal discipline often put him in conflict with other members of the ruling circle, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who oversees the energy sector and is the informal leader of the siloviki clan of security service veterans close to Putin.
Sechin -- who is far less enamored of fiscal discipline than Kudrin -- tried on numerous occasions to get the finance minister sacked. But each tme Kudrin came under threat, at least until the public feud with Medvedev, Putin backed him up.
For most of his public life, Kudrin steered clear of politics, preferring to play the role of the competent technocrat and economic manager. That all changed earlier this year, when he began calling for political reform, arguing that without it, true economic modernization would be impossible.
Speaking at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February, Kudrin said Russia needed open and inclusive elections, arguing that in order to make difficult and painful economic choices, the government will need a "mandate of trust" from the Russian people.
And in March, during an appearance at the forum "Russia and the World: Looking For An Investment Strategy," Kudrin made the case again:
"This country needs an institution that will make sure that we participate in formulation of these rules and their application," he said. "As matter of fact, we already have such an institution, and by that I mean elections."
Putin failed to heed Kudrin's earlier calls for political liberalization, which now look prophetic. Will he listen to the advice of his old friend and colleague now?
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: THIS POST WAS UPDATED ON DECEMBER 17
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