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Analysis & Opinion
31.01.12 All The King??™s Men
By Andrew Roth

In a week at the Davos World Economic Forum characterized by misgivings over the European economy, the Russian delegation made waves with a series of speeches that painted a bleak picture of the Russian economy and called for greater political competition. The delegation, which included liberal heavyweights such as First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, may have been trying to influence Putin??™s potential economic platform as president. But was Davos the right place to do that?

At a breakfast Friday hosted by Sberbank, Russia??™s present and past policymakers slammed the Russian investment climate for an hour and a half in front of foreign investors. The rank of critics included former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov Shuvalov, Sberbank President German Gref and presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich. Gref led the charge, calling the economy ???obsolete,??? while Shuvalov said that state control and corruption were ???intolerable.??? Dvorkovich, who was less critical than the others, nonetheless said that ???constant pressure from the state??? was the key economic issue in Russia today.

But the invective was not limited to economics. Kudrin, who has drifted toward the opposition since he was sacked by President Dmitry Medvedev in late September, tried to draw a direct line between political freedoms and economic growth. ???Is it possible to modernize our country without more political competition, more political freedom???? he asked, reported the Wall Street Journal. Kudrin cited Kremlin harassment of the Parnas and Right Cause parties before December??™s parliamentary elections, as well as businesses supportive of the opposition, as key violations of political freedoms.

The statements reflected the changing political winds in Moscow, where support is slowly eroding for the ruling party, United Russia, and Vladimir Putin??™s own poll numbers have dropped to 37 percent, according to a Levada Center poll last week. The Russian delegation at Davos is widely seen as representing the liberal wing of the Russian government, which is at odds with conservatives such as Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. Analysts saw the harsh critique as the most recent salvo in the war which has most recently been set off by Putin??™s announcement he would be running for reelection in September.

Yet while opposition to Putin in Russia is at its highest point yet and tens of thousands are expected to brave the cold this weekend for another protest in central Moscow, time is running out for the Kremlin??™s liberal faction. With just more than a month remaining before Putin??™s all-but-certain return to the presidency, a source close to the Davos convention told Reuters that ???the liberals are feeling squeezed. They are just scared they will lose out completely after March.???

Alexei Mukhin, president of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, told Russia Profile that with the elections fast approaching, the liberals in the Kremlin were trying to grab Putin??™s attention with a presidential platform on burning issues. ???Naturally the liberal clan in the Kremlin has its own political platform,??? he said. ???The run-up to the election campaign is the time when they can express that plan to certain candidates and hopefully make themselves heard.???

Jana Kobzova, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, disagreed, saying that the committee members could have found a better moment to make a case for themselves. ???If you??™re trying to position yourself, then Davos is not the place to do it,??? she said. ???If you want to position yourself in Russia, then you do it in Russia.???

While many noted the sharp tone of the speeches at Davos, the substance of the liberals??™ critique hardly deviated from the line set by Putin himself in an article titled ???We need a new economy,??? released yesterday in the respected daily Vedomosti. Each of Putin??™s key points ??“ decreasing the government??™s presence in the economy, weeding out corruption and moving the economy away from its dependence on energy exports ??“ was chief among the concerns expressed about the Russian economy by the Davos committee at the breakfast meeting.

The members of the commission also have an established history of criticizing government policies, meaning it is unlikely that their statements were unexpected in Kremlin circles. Kudrin, who insinuated that Medvedev??™s financial policies as future prime minister would bankrupt Russia and who has also spoken at opposition rallies, has been especially vocal recently. Shuvalov, too, has tried to make the case in the Kremlin that the recent protests in Russia represented a positive step for Russian politics.

Rather than infighting between Kremlin clans, Kobzova said the Davos speeches may have been an attempt to convince foreign investors that Russia was serious about its commitment to economic and political reform. ???You don??™t just let these people run loose in Davos without an idea of what they??™ll say and I think that if you??™re trying to send a message to Europe, then these are exactly the kind of people that should go to Davos, and try to convince investors that Russia is really serious about reforms,??? said Kobzova.
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