By Jason Bush As he went into Thursday's summit with U.S. President George Bush, Vladimir Putin was no doubt braced for criticism of his increasingly authoritarian ways. Yet the very same day that the Russian President was getting an earful from Bush in Slovakia, another senior politician -- former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov -- was digging the knife into his former boss at home, in what could be the start of powerful new political opposition.
Kasyanov, who headed the Russian government between 2000 and 2004, was sacked in March and replaced with Mikhail Fradkov, a little-known bureaucrat no doubt picked because of his complete subservience to Putin. Kasyanov's blistering attack on Putin's policies finally ended months of silence. At a specially convened press conference in Moscow, Kasyanov pulled no punches, slamming everything from Putin's abolition of regional elections to the persecution of the Yukos oil company, the mishandling of reforms, and Russia's social benefits system.
"EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE." Although Kasyanov refrained from blaming Putin personally, the message was crystal clear. "The general conclusion is that the country is going in the wrong direction. The vector has changed. This vector is wrong and negatively influences the social and economic development of the country," he said.
To resist these negative tendencies, Kasyanov added that democratic forces in Russia should unite in a single party. Perhaps Kasyanov himself was up for the job of leading them? He declined to give a definite answer. But the former Premier did hint at presidential ambitions. "Everything is possible," he said. "What's important is that whoever is President in 2008 will lead Russia in a democratic direction."
Strong words indeed from the man who was the head of the Russian government until just a few months ago. It's probably the most stinging public attack on Putin ever made by a former high-ranking official and yet more evidence that, as Putin's political mistakes add up, his critics are getting bolder.
MOUNTING CRITICISM. Kasyanov's comments come just a few weeks after almost identical criticisms were voiced by Andrei Illarionov, presidential economic adviser and another political insider who was demoted after speaking out against Putin. "More and more people [in the Russian elite] are willing to criticize Putin both in public and in private. This is all happening very quickly," says Anders Aslund, director of the Russian & Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., who believes Putin's authority is crumbling fast.
Analysts in Russia have been quick to draw parallels between Kasyanov and the President of neighboring Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected to office after last year's dramatic democratic revolution in the former Soviet republic.
Like Kasyanov, Yushchenko also served as a loyal Prime Minister. But after being sacked from the government in 2001, he joined the opposition -- which he managed to unite and lead to victory on a program of democratic change.
DOSSIER OF DIRT? So is Kasyanov a Russian Yushchenko in the making? They certainly have some things in common. Both are professional financiers have reputations for competent economic management. Both presided over an impressive slew of economic reforms while in office. And both are even said to be popular among female voters because of their good looks.
On the other hand, Kasyanov has a more ambiguous reputation than Yushchenko. Russian critics have publicly dubbed him "Misha [Mikhail] 2%", a reference to the ex-Premier's alleged fondness for bribes. "Putin knows that Kasyanov will never rebel. The Kremlin has too much dirt on him," Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda argued on Thursday.
Many analysts believe that one reason Putin dismissed Kasyanov was his alleged closeness to "oligarch" interests. Kasyanov is seen as a representative of the financial and political elite that achieved power in Russia under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who had become highly unpopular with ordinary Russians by the end of his rule.
EYES ON 2008. Still, Kasyanov probably cuts a more impressive figure with voters than the existing leaders of Russia's divided liberal opposition. And in a country where political battles are typically decided inside the elite, his good links with Russia's increasingly disgruntled business Establishment may do him no harm.
What's more, if the Kremlin keeps on repeating mistakes like its attack on Yukos and its bungled handling of benefits reforms, then the relatively stable and successful years of Kasyanov's premiership could soon end up looking like a golden age.
So Kasyanov for President? It's still far too early to make predictions. Russia's next presidential election isn't till 2008, and a lot can happen between now and then. For now, Kasyanov's threat to Putin is a minor irritant and can perhaps be written off as little more than personal sour grapes. Still, if Kasyanov is serious about following the example of Ukraine's Yushchenko, he may be wise to start watching who prepares his food. Bush is a correspondent for BusinessWeek in Moscow