It’s a Gift to Be Underestimated

medved022610.jpgIn his latest Washington Post op/ed, has Anders Åslund drank the Kool-Aid on Russia’s fake inter-governmental opposition, or are these byzantine fissures actually genuine?  Back when we interviewed him last April, Åslund had cited Igor Yurgens as one of the most important progressives within Dmitry Medvedev’s entourage, and this has certainly materialized, at least rhetorically, with the Institute of the Contemporary Development report.  What seems more interesting is the apparent divide between Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin (perhaps we can see the big “central modernization” speech by Surkov as a way to apologize for allowing the Kaliningrad protests), as well as the call from Gleb Pavlovsky for Putin to retire.  Obviously the jury is still out on this out – but I think it is pretty far-fetched to claim that Russia is on the brink of any major change right now.

A cacophony of elite voices are offering critiques, to the point that 2010 already bears some resemblance to 1987, the year Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy of openness came to life. Igor Yurgens’s Institute of the Contemporary Development, which is chaired by none other than Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, has taken the lead with a full-fledged call for Western liberalism, advocating the dissolution of the Interior Ministry and the FSB, successor to the KGB. On Feb. 18, Medvedev followed its cue and sacked 17 police generals. In December, the old Kremlin courtier Gleb Pavlovsky even called on Putin to retire, saying the prime minister is obsolete.

Surprisingly, one of the most important forces acting against Putinis Vladislav Surkov, the eternal political deputy chief of thepresidential staff. Another shock came when authorities allowed morethan 10,000 people — an enormous rally by Russian standards — to demonstrate in the western city of Kaliningrad on Jan. 30,even though the protest was directed against Putin and the regionalgovernor. Surkov’s subordinate overseeing domestic politics innorthwestern Russia was instantly sacked, a rare event in Putin’sRussia. The buzz on the Moscow grapevine is that Putin accused Surkovof having allowed the protest to take place.

Russians are becoming less afraid than in recent years and are evenashamed of their prior cowardice. Those jumping on the bandwagoninclude the respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who publiclycriticized Putin’s United Russia party, and Sergei Mironov, the Putinloyalist who chairs the Russian Federation Council.

Although Medvedev is widely deprecated domestically and abroad, it can be a gift to be underestimated. The president has criticized state corporations, law enforcement and corruption in public, providing openings for others to fill in, and he offers an alternative platform of power.

Put another way, Russia is finally experiencing a thaw in the middle of winter.