The Kremlin, Moscow

MOSCOW – The past week’s developments gave lots of food for conjecture and speculations among Kremlinologists both within Russia and beyond. The regime – President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – sent out an array of signals that could be interpreted as both the attempts at somewhat liberalizing Russia’s domestic policy and proof of growing differences between the President and the Prime Minister.

Medvedev has recalled from the State Duma the government-submitted amendments to the Criminal Code designed to dramatically expand the definition of such concepts as state secret, high treason and espionage. They could well be used by secret services to battle with political opposition, NGOs, dissent and just criticisms of government officials. Now, President Medvedev has ordered his Administration to rework the bill.

In addition, the President met with ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta daily chief editor Dmitry Muratov, deemed among the most consistent critics of the government’s actions. Medvedev expressed his condolences over the killings of lawyer Stanislav Margelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburina. The expert community took it as recognition of the political nature of the crime possibly committed by extremists.

Furthermore, speaking to Bulgarian media representatives, Medvedev clearly indicated that he had every right to criticize Putin and his government, despite the President-Premier close relationship. This statement was interpreted as Medvedev’s attempt at self-assertion as the nation’s sole leader. Note was also taken of the law enforcers’ gentleness in dealing with the participants of anti-government demonstrations staged in Moscow last weekend under the slogans of criticizing the government’s anti-crisis efforts. The order for the police to show restraint could have come from the Kremlin.

Tellingly, according to an unidentified General Staff official, Moscow has suspended the implementation of plans to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave because newly elected President Obama was not pushing hard to station missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Although these Iskanders have yet to be manufactured, Kremlin has masterminded the act as a gesture of goodwill to the new Washington Administration.

Prime Minister Putin surprised participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos with his unexpectedly liberal pronouncements. In contrast to his standard behavior, the Russian Prime Minister tempered his criticism of the United States, but warned against excessive state interference in the economy and a blind faith in the government omnipotence. Some experts even joked that Andrei Illarionov, a classic liberal economist, Putin’s former economic adviser and presently a Cato Institute research fellow had had a hand in writing his speech.

However such surprise in conjunction with Putin’s address is hardly justified. Experience shows that listeners usually get from Putin what they want to hear. The topic of a limited government is clearly attractive to many in Davos and the West at large. Given a profound economic downturn in Russia, the Kremlin can no longer afford to keep challenging the West and has to resort to mimicry. Putin’s liberal statements in Davos implicitly indicate that the Russian authorities have recognized that the demand for liberal ideas persists in Russia.

Admittedly, the significance of Putin’s statements in Davos should not be inflated. In fact, speaking on the sidelines of the Davos Forum the Russian Prime Minister virtually disavowed his own words intimating that such economic spheres as aircraft-building, nuclear power industry, as well as oil and gas cannot develop without the government influencing them directly and effectively. According to Putin, the significance of limited government lies in the fact that it cannot be made responsible for business’ errors. The government has a right to chose whom to back up and whom not. These reservations are radically changing the meaning of Putin’s formal address.

As for the Medvedev-Putin relationship, they clearly have differences. Neither one, nor the other is willing to sacrifice their popularity and assume the responsibility for the tough crisis aftereffects. Both have specific business preferences. But one should not exaggerate these disparities. In the final analysis, both belong to the same team and cannot but realize that the deepening meltdown is threatening their power. Both find it important to avert the popular discontent turning into a color revolution in Russia. The island of stability, which the Kremlin leaders used to call Russia only a few months ago, exists no longer. The crisis is deepening. The limits of the euro/dollar basket corridor which the Central Bank established for the ruble two weeks ago in the hope that it would hold for several months were almost reached last week, and the national currency devaluation is proceeding at rapid pace.

The President and the Prime Minister realize that Russia cannot do without Western support. Thus, the objective of improving Russia’s image abroad is once again coming to the fore. This explains the Kremlin’s signals of domestic liberalization and liberal rhetoric abroad. The Obama Administration should critically address these verbal signals and urge the Kremlin to show deeds rather than words.

Yevgeny Volk is the Coordinator of The Heritage Foundation’s Moscow Office