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Everybody Loves a Thaw

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Everybody loves this idea of a thaw,” says Konstantin Remchukov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few independent national newspapers.

So far, Mr. Medvedev has given little more than rhetorical support to the idea of loosening up. Any change would come within the tight bounds of the system established by Vladimir Putin, who is set to become prime minister on Thursday after relinquishing the presidency.One of Mr. Medvedev’s first acts after his election in March was to take over as chairman of a think tank run by prominent liberal experts. That group is preparing reports for the incoming president on economic, social and electoral change.”We’re trying to help the president who was elected under the most democratic slogans that I’ve heard in Russia in all my 55 years,” said Igor Yurgens, who heads the center. When Mr. Medvedev met with institute specialists in March at a session covered on state television, he called for “open discussion.” Mr. Yurgens says he has delivered the institute’s early reports directly to Mr. Medvedev.Mr. Yurgens and his colleagues call for dramatic changes such as lifting state control over major media, opening up political competition, strengthening judicial independence, rolling back state control over the economy and softening the confrontational tone in foreign policy.”We’ll see what happens when it comes to implementing these ideas,” Mr. Yurgens says, acknowledging that he doesn’t expect wholesale change. (…)Some analysts say Mr. Putin would like to gradually distance himself from these former allies.”In the Kremlin, they realize they’ve done just about all the harsh stuff they need to, and now they can be a bit softer,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist who studies the Russian elite. “In substance, it will still be an authoritarian state, just one that’s camouflaging itself, modernizing.”Pro-market officials like Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin and Kremlin economic aide Igor Shuvalov are widely expected to see their influence grow. They are under pressure to tame rising inflation, which has been fueled by heavy government spending and rising food prices world-wide.Sergei Storchak, a deputy finance minister, was jailed last year on corruption charges in what was widely viewed as a politically motivated effort to undermine his boss, Mr. Kudrin. The case could come to trial in the next few months. Observers are waiting to see if he is granted bail or the charges are reduced or dropped.