Russian opposition use Davos to tell Putin to reform or lose power

City A.M. Reporter
KREMLIN clan in-fighting spilled into the open last week when government officials sympathetic with Russia’s fragmented opposition warned the country’s ultimate leader Vladimir Putin he may soon lose power if he doesn’t undertake sweeping reforms.

Putin, Russia’s president from 2000 to 2008 and now prime minister, is expected to return to the presidency after March elections, but is looking increasingly out of touch after the opposition brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in December to demand a re-run of parliamentary elections.

Putin first dismissed the protesters as chattering monkeys financed from abroad, then backed a proposal from his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev for gradual political reform, but later had a former KGB spy appointed as Kremlin chief of staff.

Kremlin insiders say the muted response is the result of a fight for the ear of Putin between the ‘siloviki’, men with a security services background, and a ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ faction whose influence has substantially weakened as Medvedev's term draws to a close.

Almost the entire ‘moderates’ clan travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland last week and used the event, previously attended by both Putin and Medvedev, to speak about the massive political challenges Russia faces.

Comments made by a raft of leading public figures contrasted sharply with previous Russian Davos appearances, when officials mostly trumpeted successes in improving the investment climate.

“We have a chance to hear clear and tough voices that the current situation is intolerable and needs to be changed,” Putin’s first deputy Igor Shuvalov said in Davos.

“Changes can differ. Things can be changed in such a way that power can be lost like it was for Gorbachev in 1991,” he said. “We shall not lean towards conservatives, (who want) to cork the bottle and not release any gas, or do the opposite and give so much freedom that it leads to a chaos.”

German Gref, chief executive officer of state-owned Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, said the authorities needed to “learn to listen to the unpleasant truth about themselves, rather than put pressure on the people”.

Another senior official, top Kremlin economic aide Arkady Dvokovich, said Russia needed a party representing the political right and described Russia’s main problem as “oversized and constant pressure from the state”.