How two pivotal figures in modern Russian history could help explain what Vlad will do next.
Vladimir Putin can't seem to decide which of his two heroes he wants to be. The tough guy KGB veteran in him clearly wants to follow the example of the late hard-line Soviet leader Yury Andropov. But another side of Putin yearns to emulate the reforming and modernizing tsarist-era Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.
For the first six months of his third term in the Kremlin, Putin was all Andropov all the time. From new laws cracking down on dissent, to the imprisonment of anti-Kremlin demonstrators, the shocking abduction and alleged torture of Left Front activist Leonid Razvozzhayev, the vibe oozed repression and regression.
But the recent sacking of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov over a defense-procurement scandal was widely interpreted by Moscow's chattering class as an important watershed and potential turning point for Putin's presidency. "It seems that the third presidential term is going to be quite unlike a simple continuation of the previous two. Just like the situation in the country and in the world is quite unlike the one that existed in 2000-2008," political analyst Leonid Radzikhovskiy writes in "Nezavisimaya gazeta."
But a turning point toward what?
Some Kremlin-watchers, including many not favorably inclined toward Putin, view the Serdyukov sacking as a prelude to the president discovering his inner Stolypin and pivoting in a reformist direction in the coming months -- cracking down on corruption and restructuring the economy.
Others, however, see it as an ominous sign that Putin is gearing up to double down on repression and purge the elite of disloyal elements under the guise of an anticorruption campaign. The move would be reminiscent of Andropov's cleansing of the Soviet leadership during his brief 15-month rule, in which he fired 18 ministers and 37 regional party bosses.
Which interpretation is correct has broad implications for everything from the Kremlin's ongoing struggle with the opposition, to the intramural cold war within the ruling elite, to Russia's prospects for economic modernization.
Discovering His Inner Stolypin
With a long-awaited and badly needed restructuring of Russia's creaking social-welfare system stalled, foreign and domestic investment in the private sector drying up, and a budget crunch looming, any move toward reform, analysts say, would come more out of necessity than out of conviction.
But the repressive policies Putin has followed since May, some Kremlin-watchers say, now give him the political space to commence economic reforms in earnest. "It is the best time to start a new round of economic liberalization, given the political freeze," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote in a recent article in Slon.ru. "For Putin, this is evidently his last chance to get on top of a situation which is objectively not going his way. And if he does not take advantage of the moment now, he will not have such an opportunity again. It is also important that the (excessively) repressive policies of recent months allow Putin to act as if from a position of strength, and not one of weakness."
Petrov notes that there are persistent rumors circulating in Moscow that
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government is about to be replaced.
And many eyes, he writes, are on former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin,
"who seems to be continually waiting for something and is in no hurry
to move into opposition to Putin."
In one sense, bringing in Kudrin and pushing through social and market reforms would be shrewd. Such a move would be cheered by the urban professional wing of the opposition, which reveres Kudrin and favors economic liberalization, but staunchly opposed by the Kremlin's opponents on the left. Splitting the opposition in this way would give the Kremlin, which has been on the defensive most of the year, some breathing space.
I have long believed this was the real motivation behind the criminal probe against Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, who could prove dangerous in an environment of working-class and rural unrest. But bringing back the widely respected Kudrin to save the Kremlin's economic bacon also has its risks. Kudrin has long argued that any successful economic liberalization must also be accompanied by political reform and increased pluralism -- something Putin clearly has no stomach for.
And even as his name is surfacing for the prime minister's job, Kudrin is clearly hedging his bets. As Kremlin-watcher Stanislav Belkovsky notes in "Moskovsky komsomolets," Kudrin is openly calling for early elections to the State Duma and has placed his ally, Dmitry Nekrasov, on the opposition's Coordinating Council.
Unleashing His Inner Andropov
One of the hallmarks of Putin's rule has been stability among the ruling elite. His people, his top ministers, members of his inner circle, were untouchable. The law, to quote a popular refrain from the opposition, was only for his enemies.
Serdyukov's sacking over a corruption scandal at Oboronservis, a military procurement company set up by the Defense Ministry, was seen as a sharp turn away from this "stability of cadres" approach. "Now, nobody is untouchable," political analyst Leonid Radzikhovskiy writes in "Nezavisimaya gazeta."