Following the December 10 demonstration over the recent parliamentary elections, Russia's former finance minister Alexei Kudrin has made his political debut to come out in support of the protests. The move looks to be a major boost for the protesters, but could also perhaps be part of a Kremlin response.
Kudrin, who served as finance minister for 10 years in which Russia's economy sped from bankruptcy to boom - a chunk of which he fought to ring fence, and which defended the country from financial disaster during 2008 - resigned in September after rowing publicly with President Dmitry Medvedev over what he called excessive growth of budget expenditure and strengthening dependency on the price of oil.
Now Kudrin, more a technocrat over the past decade, has made his political debut with an extensive interview published on December 12 by business daily Vedomosti. In the interview, Kudrin backed protestors' criticism of electoral fraud and said he would be ready to contribute to a new liberal party.
Kudrin's resignation in September also seemed prompted by the decision of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to take over from Medvedev in the March 2012 presidential elections. Some observers suggested at the time that Kudrin was being lined up to take the PM post following Putin's move back to the Kremlin, with Medvedev to be sacrificed.
More cynical commentators now suspect that the Kremlin may be preparing its response to the protests by promoting Kudrin as a supporter, and then making him prime minister in March. Appointing a prominent liberal as the second-in-command whilst not risking a significant departure from the agreed government line could be an almost perfect solution. The added bonus would be that Russia would get its most-respected administrator amongst investors back as it heads into another global economic storm.
Kudrin claimed in the interview: "Nobody has discussed the premier post with me. The genuine reason of my leaving is that the previous incorrect decisions that were made would not be reviewed. I have no plans to fight with the consequences of the decisions that I was against."
Whilst apparently refusing to rule out taking the PM's chair, Kudrin also sought to distance himself from Putin, but did not criticize him directly. He insisted that he had never been a close ally to the current PM, but continued to respect him regardless of "disagreements on several issues."
In his usual measured tones, Kudrin acknowledged that there had been electoral fraud on December 4 and called for a partial recount, as well as the resignation of the chairman of the electoral commission. "It is certain that the electoral commissions and observers performed very poorly, Kudrin told Vedomosti. "There should be a recount in some districts and even some regions. I regard the question of resignation of the chairman of the electoral commission Vladimir Churov justified. If this is not done, the next elections will be a non-event."
"All perpetrators [of electoral fraud] should receive punishment, including criminal punishment," Kudrin insisted, before adding that the wave of protests was "natural and legal" and the authorities should not try to restrict them.
Sharing the protestors concerns, he criticized the ruling United Russia party for lack of reform, saying: "Protection of business, ending corruption, a just legal system, state presence in economy - in all these fields, despite promises, there have been no cardinal changes."
However, he added that he expects the reform programme to continue following the end of election season in March. "United Russia is an experienced and pragmatic party," he stated. "I think it will return to reality after populist statements."
Kudrin said he was sure a new liberal party would appear, suggesting such a party could take 10-20% of the vote in future elections. "The demand on the creation of such a [political] structure is so high that it will inevitably be established," he said, adding vaguely: "I am ready to contribute to it."
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