Kudrin: Russia's quiet liberal turns dissident
Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who on Monday resigned after objecting to a plan to install Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister, was the last remnant in the Russian government from the days of post-Soviet liberal reform.
The longest-serving finance minister of any major world power, Kudrin has occupied his post since the first months of Vladimir Putin's presidency in 2000 and guided the economy through cycles of growth and recession.
Kudrin has won international plaudits for keeping a stable ruble and cannily building up sovereign wealth funds that protected Russia from a repeat of its 1998 financial meltdown when the global economic crisis struck in 2008.
But now the softly-spoken fiscal hawk's decade-long grip on Russia's top public finance post has come to a dramatic and bitter end after he refused to serve in a government headed by current President Medvedev.
Medvedev becoming prime minister is a key part of Russia's new political strategy which will see Putin stand in presidential elections next year and the current Kremlin chief step aside.
Dropping the caution characteristic of a trained economist, Kudrin revealed that he had experienced major differences with Medvedev, particularly over a ramping up of military spending that risks bloating the budget deficit.
"I do not see myself in the new government. It's not just that nobody offered me anything. I think that the differences that I have will not allow me to be in this government," Kudrin said.
Medvedev reacted furiously to the comments, which he said were "unseemly and unjustifiable", and subjected Kudrin to an extraordinary public dressing-down reminiscent of the humilations of officials from Soviet times.
But the outgoing minister barely flinched, even as Medvedev lambasted his comments and made the embarrassing disclosure Kudrin had already shown interest in jumping ship to join a right-wing liberal party.
The Kommersant daily suggested Kurdrin's outburst was not just motivated by economic considerations but anger that he was passed over to serve as prime minister under Putin from next year.
"Kudrin very much wanted to lead a right-wing liberal party and could have had a very good project," it quoted a source as saying.
"But they did not let him and promised that he would become prime minister in 2012. But now we know who that will be."
The graduate of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) State University had already in past months shown signs of dissatisfaction with Russia's course under the dominance of ruling party United Russia and its tandem leaders.
He provoked a furious reaction from United Russia at a conference in February when he said that only "free and honest" elections would provide the mandate to carry out the reform that the economy urgently needed.
Kudrin also said that Russia was at a "historic" crossroads where it had to decide whether to retain its dependence on hydrocarbons or genuinely diversify the economy.
"Will we in the next 5-10 years tear ourselves away from this dependence, get off this needle, or won't we? This is the question," he said.
Kudrin, 50, entered the federal government under president Boris Yeltsin, first working as deputy Kremlin chief of staff and then as deputy finance minister before becoming finance minister in May 2000.
Along with the then reform-inclined economy minister German Gref, Kudrin drew up a landmark strategy to transform the Russian economy by 2020 that ended up being weakened when liberals one-by-one dropped out of power.
But despite the minister's reputation for independent thinking, Putin kept Kudrin in his post, clearly thankful for his steady hand that allowed Russians to enjoy unprecedented economic stability.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Sunday had admiringly described Kudrin as an "economist and professional in capital letters who had never hidden a different point of view".
© 2011 AFP