Interview of Deputy Head of the Government of the Russian Federation – Finance Minister of the Russian Federation A. Kudrin to The New York Times
June 27, 2011
Long-Serving Finance Minister Calls for Reforms to Bolster Russia’s Power
By ELLEN BARRY
MOSCOW — It has been an unusual season for Aleksei L. Kudrin, Russia’s finance minister, one of Moscow’s quietest and most powerful men.
Several times in recent months, Mr. Kudrin — a longtime ally of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin— has called for deep domestic changes, arguing that Russia will slip out of the ranks of the world’s leading nations unless it allows for fair competition in politics and business.
In a period of political uncertainty, Mr. Kudrin’s complaints are impossible to ignore.
This is partly because, having already outlasted five prime ministers during his 11-year tenure, he will almost certainly remain in place next spring no matter who is president — presumably either Mr. Putin or the incumbent, Dmitri A. Medvedev.
But it is also because he speaks for an important group: well-placed Russian elites who are advocating for political change from within the system.
Mr. Kudrin, 50, gave an interview to The New York Times ahead of his election as dean of the faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University, a dual degree program with Bard College in New York. He laid out an argument grounded in practicalities. Oil production is going to level off for the next 10 years, so any further economic growth will have to come from other sectors, he said.
“Very clear rules are needed, and very understandable institutions — a very good judicial system, so that everybody will feel confident in his investments, in fair arbitration, in courts and in very efficient work of the government and federal bodies under its authority,” he said. “Of course, we will get away from our dependence on oil. It will be very difficult — it is necessary to create good rules of the game, and both Putin and Medvedev understand it.”
“They understand it a little bit differently,” he added. “As a whole, yes, they understand it. Probably they are ready — I think they are ready for this work. I know this from our discussions. This is why, in principle, Russia will improve its investment climate and carry out reforms under either leader.”
The Russian government is acutely aware of this line of reasoning, and on Saturday relaunched a party, Right Cause, which is meant to capture the aspirations of liberals and small businessmen disenchanted with United Russia, the political party Mr. Putin leads. Its new leader is Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the Kremlin-friendly billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, who vowed to build a two-party political system. He was careful not to openly criticize Mr. Putin.
Mr. Kudrin had already refused the position, to the evident frustration of President Medvedev. He explained last week that the new party needed to be built from the ground up, and that his government work would not allow for such an effort.
But he said that he wholeheartedly supported the creation of a strong liberal party, and that the decision by no means foreclosed his role as an advocate of its causes. “I will always facilitate the development of the political system toward greater transparency and strengthening of those who defend rightist views,” he said. “Yes, of course I will facilitate this.”
Vladimir V. Pozner, who hosts a political talk show on Channel One, said he believed Mr. Kudrin had made a calculated decision to step up his criticism during a pivotal period in Russian politics. “He is a major figure in the government setup of the Russian Federation, and he knows very well that when he says something it’s not just hot air,” Mr. Pozner said. “Who is it aimed at? I think it’s aimed at Putin.”
“He knows that he has a very strong position — he is not opposition, in any political sense,” Mr. Pozner said. Political change, he added, “has to come from on top. And there is a strong liberal element that has some hold on power.”
Mr. Kudrin’s importance is anchored in history. In 1996, he and Anatoly B. Chubais helped bring Mr. Putin to Moscow. Mr. Kudrin, then deputy chief of the presidential administration, recommended Mr. Putin as his replacement the next year, setting the stage for his rise through Russia’s political firmament.
As Mr. Putin’s finance minister, Mr. Kudrin made it his mission to steer oil revenues into a stabilization fund, and he made influential enemies. He clashed with hard-liners behind the scenes, but remained quiet, at least in public, as Mr. Putin consolidated control over Russia’s political system. Russia’s weathering of the 2008 financial crisis vindicated Mr. Kudrin’s position, leaving him more secure than ever.
After that his criticism slowly sharpened. This reached its clearest point in February when, during a speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum, he said Russia would not achieve its economic goals without introducing real political competition. He repeated that thesis in April remarks to the State Duma.
Mr. Kudrin said the shift in his public language reflected “some stages of my personal development.” He spoke with pride of his accomplishments in imposing transparency on the federal budget, and said the time had come to extend that effort to the whole government.
Mr. Kudrin is an ardent supporter of liberal arts education, which runs against the grain in a country whose schools encourage early specialization. Since 2003, he has served as a trustee of the Smolny Institute, an unusual dual degree program with Bard.
The program’s future looked murky a few years ago, when the university’s new rector, Nikolai M. Kropachev, set about a strict review of independent programs within the university. Mr. Kudrin argued for transforming the Smolny Institute into something more prominent — Russia’s first free-standing department of liberal arts and sciences — and offered to step in as dean, a position that officials say will require him to spend about a day a month on its campus.
“A new rector came in and he decided to review this program,” Mr. Kudrin said. “This worried many people. They thought that the rector’s attitude toward the program was somewhat cool. But today everything is O.K.”
“Probably my attention to this department also allowed him to be more attentive,” he said.
Susan H. Gillespie, director of the Institute for International Liberal Education at Bard, said she had been struck by Mr. Kudrin’s immersion in the details of teaching and curriculum.
“In the United States, I cannot imagine any of our public figures doing this,” Ms. Gillespie said. “It’s improbable. Imagine Timothy Geithner stepping in to save a Russian-American exchange program and putting his name on the line. I don’t see it happening.”