Russia's finance chief balks at role in Putin's new team
Russia's long-serving finance minister balked Sunday at the idea of serving in a new government formed under a plan that would return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in March.
Alexei Kudrin was the second top economic official to break ranks with Putin's decision to seek a historic third presidential mandate -- an idea revealed to the nation Saturday after months of intrigue and speculation.
"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," Russian news agencies quoted Kudrin as saying.
The plan would see Putin swap his prime minister's post with President Dmitry Medvedev -- who took over the Kremlin in 2008 -- and run for up to two more terms in office that could extend his brand of strongman rule until 2024.
Medvedev would in turn get the reward of leading the ruling United Russia party in December parliamentary elections and then forming a new government as premier next year.
The presidential incumbent has promoted a modernising agenda throughout his three years in power and promised on Saturday to create a new cabinet full of energetic people thirsting for positive change.
But Medvedev's words had little effect on Kudrin -- a hawk revered by Western investors for his decision to save much of Russia's vast oil revenues in an rainy-day fund that came in especially useful during the 2008 economic crisis.
Kudrin had sounded alarm about earlier Kremlin plans to achieve growth through broader spending and said flatly while on a visit to Washington that he "unconditionally refused" to work under Medvedev's new government.
Medvedev's top economic adviser Arkady Dvorkovich also expressed alarm at the job swap idea.
"There is no cause for joy," said Dvorkovich, after having urged the president to stand for a second term. "It's a good time to switch over to a sports channel," he wrote on Twitter.
Kudrin has served as finance minister since 2000 and was mooted by some investors as a possible candidate for the premiership post under Putin himself.
The threat of his departure is sure to add pressure to a Russian market already reeling from the after effects of the European debt crisis and fears of global financial contagion.
The idea of former KGB agent Putin returning to power also drew about 300 people from the marginalised liberal opposition to a Moscow rally just a few blocks from the Kremlin.
"Putin Must Go!" and "Your Elections are a Farce!" read some of the banners.
But polls have repeatedly shown that Putin remains by far Russia's most popular politician and Kremlin official played down the idea of the job switch creating frictions in the government.
The Kremlin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov -- known as Russia's grey cardinal who coined the phrase sovereign democracy to describe its political system -- told a forum in Moscow that "no radical steps would be undertaken" in the next years.
And his boss Sergei Naryshkin described the tandem of Medvedev and Putin as a "stable political construction".
The March presidential elections will be preceded by a legislative poll on December 4 that will prove a crucial test of the ruling elite's popular support, with Medvedev heading the list of United Russia.
The liberal opposition People's Freedom Party of Boris Nemtsov and ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov was banned from taking part after the authorities refused to register it.
Nemtsov predicted that Putin's return to the Kremlin would trigger capital flight and emigration as well as making the Russian economy even more dependent on its oil exports.
"This is a catastrophic scenario for Russia," he told Moscow Echo radio.
Putin first became president when Boris Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year's Eve 1999. He restored Russia's stability during a period of high oil prices but was also accused of imposing an authoritarian regime.
If Putin again serves the two maximum consecutive terms, he could stay in power until 2024, by which time he would be 72 and the longest-serving Moscow leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.
The White House meanwhile said a "reset" of US-Russian ties would go forward regardless of who Moscow's next president is.
"The reset has always been about national interests and not individual personalities," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, in a statement sent to AFP on Sunday.
Although Putin expressed strong criticism of the United States during his presidency and saw ties between Moscow and Washington erode during that time, "it's worth noting that Vladimir Putin was Prime Minister throughout the reset," Vietor said.
"We are quite confident that we can continue to build on the progress made during the Obama Administration."
Although he acknowledged that the United States continues to "differ openly and honestly with Russia on several issues," Vietor said "we will continue to build on the progress of the reset whoever serves as the next president of Russia."
© 2011 AFP