Russia’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, came up with an interesting idea for turning Russia’s recent economic woes to the country’s advantage: moving up the scheduled 2017 presidential election. The problem with this suggestion — which may have been floated as a trial balloon with the Kremlin’s approval — is that President Vladimir Putin could use it to take Russia further into the past. Kudrin, who built up the international reserves that are now helping Russia ride out a second economic crisis, lost the finance minister’s job in 2011 and has since made liberal statements that went against Putin’s line. The president, however, still counts him among his loyalists. During a carefully choreographed call-in session with voters in April, Kudrin asked the president about creating a new growth model for Russia. In response, Putin called their relationship “very good, practically a friendship,” and said he would stick to the policies Kudrin helped formulate during his tenure: “If you and I failed to envision something, that is probably our fault, and yours, too.”
Kudrin clearly wasn’t satisfied with this answer: Since he left the finance post, the price of oil has dropped more than 50 percent, Russia invaded Crimea and become involved in the conflict in Ukraine, creating severe tensions with the West. Surely, those developments must call for changes to the old plan. So today, speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Putin’s version of Davos, Kudrin dropped his bombshell:
Structural reforms are not just about writing a nice document. They take political will, they take a team, they take a president who shares all these points. Why don’t we, if we’re bringing forward the parliamentary election, why don’t we also bring forward the presidential election and announce a new reform program that would be easier to implement with a mandate of trust?
It seems strange to suggest that Putin might need a stronger mandate, given that he has an approval rating above 80 percent. In April, a poll found that 62 percent of Russians were ready to vote for Putin; no one else received more than 6 percent support. There is, however, some uncertainty about the future: What if the economy performs so poorly that by 2017, when the next election is scheduled to take place, Putin could no longer be confident of a more or less honest victory?