Against the backdrop of the horrific May 9 terrorist bombing in Dagestan, the announcement of a U.S.-Russian deal to cut their respective arsenals of nuclear warheads by two-thirds and the creation of a new NATO-Russia Council, what was perhaps the most significant development in Russian politics last week–a series of comments made by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov–seemed rather insignificant. Yet Kasyanov’s remarks shed light on what appear to be surprising changes in the balance of power (“na verhku”)–at the top of Russia’s political system.
On May 15, Kasyanov told the State Duma there would be no “breakthroughs” in the economy in the near future, saying that he supported “systematic, consistent work” to adapt the economy to legislative changes and innovations. A yearly economic growth rate of 6-8 percent was possible, he said–the higher figure being President Vladimir Putin’s preference–but only if the “necessary fundamentals” were created. What is more, there would be no “cardinal changes” in the organs of state power any time soon. Instead, Kasyanov said, reform of the state management bodies would continue to be conducted as a kind of “fine tuning.”
What was remarkable about the prime minister’s statements is that they blatantly flew in the face of demands his boss made earlier. Indeed, in April Putin had upbraided the cabinet for coming up with “insufficiently ambitious” economic projections positing growth over the next four years at 4-4.5 percent per year, not the 8-percent-plus annual growth rate that the head of state and his iconoclastic economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, saw as necessary if Russia were to catch up with the West. Putin revisited the subject earlier this month, complaining that he had not yet seen the revised forecasts he had requested a month earlier. While the cabinet did come up with new, slightly higher numbers, they still projected rates nowhere close to what Putin wanted. Kasyanov’s comment about there being no plans to make “cardinal changes” in the organs of state power appeared to contradict completely the spirit, if not the letter of Putin’s April 18 State of the Nation speech, during which he said the country’s inefficient and corrupt state apparatus was the single biggest obstacle to economic growth.
Yet, last week, even while the Russian media continued reporting the rumors that Kasyanov’s days as PM were numbered (these rumors have dogged him for virtually the entire two years he’s held the post), the prime minister not only contradicted the president in front of the lower house of parliament, but met with a group of oil barons to discuss the lifting of restrictions on oil exports and chaired a cabinet meeting devoted to the state of the country’s metallurgical industry. Kasyanov looked, as some observers noted, increasingly presidential.