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Putin on a show?
Calling in the Talent

Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is being invited back in from the cold by the Kremlin. The Financial Times is cautiously optimistic about what this might mean:

Despite increasing controls on democracy, Mr Putin’s authority in his first two presidential terms rested on the solid foundations of economic growth and genuine increases in living standards, albeit helped by sharply rising oil prices. Since his return for a third term in 2012, with Russia’s oil-based growth model exhausted, the Putin regime has become more nakedly authoritarian. His popularity rests on a fragile base of military mobilisation coupled with a vicious anti-western propaganda campaign portraying Russia as a “besieged fortress”. […]

Against that backdrop, Mr Kudrin’s return is a fillip to the liberal faction in Russia’s leadership, after the balance shifted too far in recent years towards the siloviki, or hardline military and security officials. It will give a voice to a prominent, western-leaning, reformer.

Putin himself was reasonably noncommittal about Kudrin when asked about it at this year’s edition of his multi-hour call-in show: “He’s a very good specialist, a brilliant expert,” Putin told his interlocutor. “And if he wants to contribute to resolving the problems facing the nation, why not?” Furthermore, Kudrin is not being granted all that prominent a role: he is being appointed the deputy head of the president’s economic council, a body that Putin has very rarely consulted with during his third term. And even during Putin’s first two terms in office, economic reforms were more planned than executed. As Kirill Rogov writes in the Moscow Times:

Kudrin has in fact been brought in to play an old game. This will be the fourth such program of Putin’s rule.

The first was drafted by German Gref back in 2000. At the time, Putin was cultivating the image of a strongman-reformer, a man who effortlessly fulfilled the longing of the Russian people for a strong leader alongside the hopes of the Russian elite for a liberal market economy.

The government never formally adopted the program. Ministers took the draft “into consideration,” allowing leaders to implement or ignore policies as they pleased.

Imagine owning a horse-drawn cart: Someone brings you plans to convert it into a car and you promise to “take it into consideration.” At some point, you attach side mirrors, replace the two rear wheels with alloy rims, apply metallic paint to the sideboards and install an air conditioner for the driver. The result is that you have ostensibly achieved 35 percent fulfillment of the plan. The Russian government takes a similar approach.

Outsiders ultimately should not bother trying to read the tea leaves in the Kremlin; even well-connected Russians often fail to predict the twists and turns of the power struggle within. That said, Kudrin is one of a handful of Russians who have managed to retain the respect of people outside and inside Russia throughout the Putin era. He is unlikely to have accepted an appointment without some reason for thinking that his advice would be listened to.

It will be worth watching closely to see whether there are additional signs that Putin, an acrobat of power who has become the most powerful Russian leader in decades in part because he keeps surprising and outsmarting his opponents, has yet another somersault in mind.

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