President Dmitri Medvedev’s public dressing down and dismissal of his country’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, on September 26 has attracted widespread attention in Russia and abroad.

 Their chilling exchange, filmed at what otherwise appeared to be a dull meeting in Dmitrovgrad of the Commission for Modernization and Technological Development of the Russian Economy, appears on YouTube. Their chilling, if not icy exchange lifts a bit of the Russian skirt to reveal the nether regions of Kremlin politics that are, like Soviet goings-on before, often opaque – and distant from the people the government serves. 

Medvedev must have been seething from the news revealed two days before, and the reaction to it, that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin intends formally to replace him at the country’s helm when it holds presidential elections in 2012. While in spirit, the move sounds like a continuation of the nominal duopoly the two leaders have conducted, Putin’s move back to the Kremlin confirms what many thought all along – that Medvedev’s presidency merely kept the seat warm while Putin worked his way around term limits that seemed like a nuisance.  

At a personal level, therefore, it appears that Medvedev took out on Kudrin his humiliation and frustration at what will now be central to his unfortunately eunuch-like political legacy. Medvedev’s references with Kudrin and throughout his opening remarks at the conference about decisions he has made and about his supremacy in government were noteworthy, too. Whereas President Bush was ridiculed by many for claiming, “I am the decider,” in fact, he was to a substantial extent; by making the same claim, Medvedev confirmed to Russians and others that he is not – and he cannot be happy about that either. 

Kudrin has long been regarded as someone loyal to Putin (and, through him, to Medvedev). He played a key role in the design and implementation of Russian economic and finance policy over the past decade. He was so successful that Euromoney named him “finance minister of the year” in October 2010. But Kudrin is also known as someone who speaks frankly and, for a Russian official, remarkable honestly. As with other “frank” figures in authoritarian governments, Kudrin’s tartness was directly proportional to his distance from his capital. So at a political level, Medvedev’s rebuke for the offense of having talked behind his and Putin’s back – and, worse, in the United States – says to everyone else that there will be none of this during Russia’s coming political transition. Others will no doubt take the hint. The episode also confirms that people at the top have concerns about the fraying and declining popularity of the Putin/Medvedev political movement, United Russia. Whatever their rivalry, the duo appears convinced that there must be no sniping, gossiping or leaking. 

Finally, it may also be that Medvedev and Putin have decided they need someone to blame for Russia’s growing economic and especially budgetary problems. Atop the United Russia electoral ticket and the country’s presumed next prime minister, Medvedev has now presented himself as a fighter – Russians like fighters – and found someone to blame in Kudrin. In years past, Putin or Boris Yeltsin before him could fire a prime ministerial fall-guy a way to shift the blame and change course. With Russia’s president and prime minister just changing chairs, that obviously will not work. The country’s finance minister may not have been the most logical one to blame, but his alleged insubordination made him a good target. 

In a year, most will have forgotten both Medvedev’s eruption and Kudrin. They will be left with the stodginess of Putin redux. As noted by recent visitors to Moscow, the mood there is one of stagnation similar in social effect, if not politically, to the latter years of rule by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Those who want to see Russia on the go – moving toward modernity, toward Europe, toward the rule of law, and toward more of the mores and ways of a more open and democratic system (even if tinged by a whiff of authoritarianism) – are seemingly concluding that the country will just have to wait out Putin. That picture of a Russia on the stop all the way to 2024 is a depressing one that impresses fewer Russians that at any time during the Putin era. While he was no saint, the fall of Kudrin adds to that picture. 

Ambassador Ross Wilson is the Director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. As a U.S. diplomat, he served as American ambassador to Turkey in 2005-08 and to Azerbaijan in 2000-03, and he was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1980-82 and 1987-90.

Related Experts: Ross Wilson