The most intriguing aspect of the current wary circling dance between protesters and the government in Russia is the role of Alexei Kudrin, former Minister of Finance, and the man widely credited as being the architect of the sane and constructive parts of Russian economic policy in the Putin years. A man who has worked with Putin since the St. Petersburg days. Reputed to be the only government official permitted to address Putin with the familiar ты.
Kudrin was unceremoniously dumped by Medvedev in the fall, for his outspoken criticism of the administrations defense spending plans. Although Kudrin called out Medvedev, given that (a) Medvedev is a cipher and a lame duck, and (b) Putin has been quite voluble in his support for dramatic increases in military spending, Putin was the actual target of Kudrin’s blast. And Medvedev would never have relieved longtime Putin associate Kudrin without Putin’s agreement.
Kudrin has moved even further from the regime. He has called for cleaning up Russian politics, the need for new Duma elections, and the necessity of a credible liberal political party. And on Saturday, he went so far as to speak at the opposition rally in Moscow.
He did so–according to his own account–after speaking with Putin (h/t R). He is holding himself out as a mediator between civil society and the government. He is calling for peaceful change to the system, predicated on normalizing politics and honest elections.
His efforts are almost certainly doomed to futility. To begin with, anyone who tries to come between parties to any domestic dispute is at high risk of being set on by both parties. What’s more, Russia is already a low trust society (pace Tim Newman), where motives are always viewed with deep suspicion. But most importantly, the only thing that makes Kudrin a credible interlocutor with Putin–his longstanding personal relationship–simultaneously makes him totally suspect in the eyes of the opposition. And if Kudrin does something to build cred with the opposition, he will make himself suspect in the eyes of the regime–and make himself vulnerable to kompromat and worse.
Which all means that if Kudrin tries to maintain his middle-of-the-road course, he will end up like most things that walk the center line: roadkill.
But this means that a negotiated, transactional resolution to the standoff is virtually impossible, because there is likely no one who has credibility with both the regime and the opposition. Indeed, the opposition itself is so splintered that there is likely no one even in its ranks that can unite it, let alone simultaneously transact with Putin.
Which means that Putin’s political purgatory is likely to last for some time. He and his regime have sharply diminished respect and prestige, and the pretense of near universal popularity has been exploded. But there is (in part by design) no credible alternative, nor anyone to bridge the divide.
The upshot of this is that this standoff is likely to continue. Putin will no doubt just try to hold on, hoping that the energy of the opposition will dissipate and the country will lapse into its usual atomized apathy.
He is likely to succeed in this, but this does not mean that the protests and the existence of the opposition are irrelevant. It is not likely–and it never was–that Putin would be removed by a popular movement surging on the streets. But the revelation that large swathes of the population are already suffering from Putin fatigue even before the official restoration begins will have its effect. The problem for observers is that its effect will be on the proverbial dog fights underneath the carpet. That is, it will change the dynamic of the intra-regime infighting, the course of the battle between the clans. The puncturing of the Putin hagiography will affect the palace intrigues, and those palace intrigues can have a dramatic effect on the way the country is governed–or not.
But as a man now outside of the palace, Kudrin’s ability to influence those intrigues is limited. He is fatally compromised as an interlocutor between the insiders and the outsiders. At most, his role is symptomatic of Russia’s current circumstances. As a serious person who was seriously invested in the status quo, his opposition is a strong signal that the current system has reached a dead end. But he will have virtually no impact on how that system evolves–or whether it is replaced by something else.