The finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, a darling of the west because of his commitment to the free market and fiscal conservatism, said he would refuse to serve under Dmitry Medvedev, who is due to replace Putin as prime minister. His departure would deal a severe blow to liberal elements inside the ruling regime.
“I do not see myself in a new government,” Kudrin said during a visit to Washington. “The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have [with Medvedev] will not allow me to join this government.”
The reformist minister said disputes about spending were to blame and it was unclear why he blamed Medvedev when Putin has the final say over the country’s economic path.
Although Putin’s return to the presidency was widely expected, the announcement, at a congress of the ruling United Russia party on Saturday, caught many off guard – even Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said in an interview: “We were totally unprepared for what was announced. It was their bilateral decision – and then they didn’t alert anyone about it.”
Others expressed dismay. “There is no reason for happiness,” tweeted Arkady Dvorkovich, another liberal politician and economic adviser to Medvedev, as the congress came to a close on Saturday.
The prospect of two more terms for Putin exacerbating creeping social and economic stagnation prompted comparisons with the long rule of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Around 300 people went on a protest against the decision in central Moscow.
Putin’s announcement that he planned to run for president in March’s vote confirmed the widely held view that he is Russia’s foremost ruler. In recent years, he has fashioned himself as a “national leader”, and was referred to as such several times at the party congress.
Medvedev’s political fate appeared less clear. The announcement of Putin’s return turns him into a lame duck. “He is the person we still have to call the president of the country, but we already can’t twist our tongues to do it,” wrote Moskovsky Komsomolets, the country’s most popular tabloid. Medvedev told the congress he would accept a post as prime minister.
Yet some analysts speculated that Kudrin’s departure from government signalled the possibility that he would either become prime minister or move to a post inside the Kremlin. Despite his liberal leanings, Kudrin remains an ally of Putin and works to balance the hardline elements within the regime, known as siloviki.
“Definitely, in this or that way, [Kudrin] will stay on the team,” said Peskov. Speaking in Washington, Kudrin said he disagreed with Medvedev’s recent approval of raising military spending to around £42bn, or 3% of gross domestic product.
Yet Peskov hinted that the problem ran deeper. Kudrin is an outspoken critic of higher social spending, as Russia battles the disastrous effects of the financial crisis. He has been struggling to prevent runaway spending as the Kremlin enacts populist measures, such as raising pensions and keeping communal charges low, in the runup to elections.
“His approach is that we should live in accordance with our incomes and shouldn’t have extra social expenditures,” Peskov said. “This is not what the leadership is insisting on.”
Putin’s popularity has plummeted during the country’s financial distress. A recent poll put his approval rating at 40% – a far cry from the 70% he regularly scored during Russia’s oil-fuelled boom years. Medvedev’s rating stands at 33%, according to the same VTsIOM poll. Yet in the absence of political competition and free media, no opponents have emerged.
Russia’s leaders will now turn their attention to the parliamentary vote, hoping to keep the constitutional majority held by United Russia. The party’s rating has fallen to 42%, according to VTsIOM, with the Communist party and far-right LDPR gaining steam.
“There is a great demand for change in society, although most of it is hidden,” said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister under Putin and current opposition leader. “Putin’s name is contradictory with the very idea of change – his inability to deliver the change that is in demand from a growing number of people will lead to a major conflict in society.”
With discontent growing, the Kremlin had attempted to build a loyal liberal opposition party that would bring in the disaffected middle class and boost Kremlin support inside parliament in the event of disastrous results for United Russia.
The Right Cause party imploded this month with the departure of its leader, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who accused Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov of orchestrating his ousting. On Sunday Prokhorov was kicked off Medvedev’s modernisation commission, in an apparent retaliation.
The leadership remains at a loss over how to boost United Russia’s support. Opposition activists such as anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny have called on people to vote for anyone but the party on 4 December, forgoing the idea of an election boycott.
Sergei Naryshkin, a Putin ally and Medvedev’s chief of staff, said Medvedev could replace Putin as leader of United Russia. Milov said the move would be a further step to protect Putin’s image as Russia’s saviour. Putin founded the All-Russia People’s Front this year in a bid to boost his support as United Russia’s fortunes fade.
“They are the most popular political leaders and statesmen in the country,” said Peskov, referring to Putin and Medvedev, “and that’s why they have the luxury of taking decisions. They can afford it.”