Russian minister quits after Putin plan rebellion

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Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin resigned on Monday after rebelling against a plan to install President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister when Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin in 2012.

Kudrin is the first top official to quit in connection with the scheme announced at the weekend for Putin, currently prime minister, and Medvedev to swap jobs after March 2012 presidential elections.

The resignation brought a dramatic end to Kudrin's career as finance minister, which started back in 2000 and had seen him become the longest serving current finance minister of any world power.

"The president of the Russian Federation signed the decree on the finance minister's resignation," Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in a statement on Russian news agencies.

Kudrin, who had also served as a deputy prime minister, himself confirmed to the RIA Novosti news agency that he had resigned.

The minister had at the weekend told reporters in the United States he could not imagine serving in a government led by Medvedev, with whom he had "differences" over the management of the economy.

In an extraordinary public dressing-down of the kind not seen in Russia for years, Medvedev had earlier personally told Kudrin that his comments were unacceptable and he had until the end of the day to decide whether to resign.

"If you do not agree with the policy of the president, which is executed by the government, then you have one option -- to resign," Medvedev told Kudrin in comments broadcast on the main evening news.

"Such statements are unseemly and cannot in any way be justified," fumed Medvedev, who conspicuously sat next to the Kremlin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, seen by most as Russia's chief political schemer.

Appearing to tackle head-on the idea that he was a lame duck after the weekend's drama, Medvedev added: "No one cancelled discipline and subordination in the government ... Any irresponsible chatterbox will have to cross me."

Kudrin had said he could not serve in a government under Medvedev whom he accused of seeking to ramp up spending -- in particular on the military -- to the detriment of Russia's budgetary position.

Yury Korgunyuk of the Indem fund told AFP that Medvedev's sudden show of political machismo came too late, given that at the weekend he had meekly abdicated the presidency to Putin.

"He agreed himself that he was a nobody and now he is taking it out on Kudrin," he said.

Russia's new power scheme -- dubbed a "castling" after the move in chess when the king changes places with the rook -- has yet to provoke any mass protests beyond a small rally in Moscow on Sunday.

But there have been murmurings of discontent and the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had earlier said Russia was at an "impasse" and doubted whether Putin -- who served two terms as president to 2008 -- was the man to implement change.

"It will be his mistake if the future president leaves everything without changes, thinks only about how to stay in power and tries to keep the old team -- who are the ones to blame for how things are," Gorbachev said.

"We can assume that there will be no movement forward if there are not serious changes along the lines of a replacement of the entire system," he wrote in the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper which he part owns.

"Without this we could lose six years. I think that the future president needs to think about this very seriously."

With the presidential mandate now expanded to six years from four, Putin could in theory serve two more terms to 2024, by which time he would be 72 and the longest serving Moscow leader since Joseph Stalin.

Boldly, the Novaya Gazeta printed on its front page caricature sketches of Putin, Medvedev and other members of the elite as they would look as old men in 2024, in the medal-festooned uniform of Soviet nomenklatura officials.

The Vedomosti daily wrote: "The swap by Putin and Medvedev does not provide the slightest hint of a readiness to solve long term problems."

But Russia's stock markets traded flat most of the day, showing no sign of panic at the thought of another term of strongman rule by Putin despite concerns among some analysts over the likely exit of the highly respected Kudrin.

"We believe Medvedev and Putin, as prime minister and president, could work very well together, providing much-needed stability and continuing the reform agenda championed by Medvedev for improving the Russian investment climate," said Ovanes Oganisian of Renaissance Capital in a note to clients.

© 2011 AFP

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