Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO

Russian President Vladimir Putin always fights back when under pressure. But, surprisingly for a system in which he reigns supreme, some of his close allies are daring to tell him that this is not always the best tactic with the Russian people.

In recent days, three influential people from different strands of the Putin elite have publicly criticised the Kremlin’s harsh treatment of the protests set off by the refusal of the authorities to let opposition candidates run in September’s Moscow city council election.

This does not mean Putin will listen or even that the elite representatives want him to. Rather, it shows that the people who have shaped the president’s policies are pondering the nature of the power transition that’s possible if Putin gives up the presidency in 2024, as the Russian constitution dictates.

There must be an alternative force which points things out and sends out signals, one way or the other. If everything is always going great, we can slip into a period of stagnation.
Sergey Chemezov 

The first and perhaps most surprising criticism came from Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of Rostec, one of the mammoth state corporations that have swallowed up much of the Russian economy during Putin’s rule. Chemezov, who served with Putin in East Germany in the 1980s, is part of a tiny circle of people Putin completely trusts. And yet on August 19, he dared disagree with the Kremlin’s official line that the Moscow protests are instigated from abroad and need to be put down by force.

He told the RBC website: “It’s obvious that people are highly irritated, and that does no-one any good. In general, my position as a citizen is that the presence of a reasonable opposition is beneficial for any representative body and ultimately for the state. There must be an alternative force which points things out and sends out signals, one way or the other. If everything is always going great, we can slip into a period of stagnation. And we’ve been there before.”

Chemezov, of course, is not  directly backing the protesters — mostly young people who would like to dismantle the Putin system rather than just get a few candidates into Moscow’s weak city legislature. He’s only arguing that the government should let off some steam instead of practicing pure suppression. But coming from him, even that is serious dissent.

On August 21, Alexei Kudrin, the architect of Putin’s tight financial policy and head of Russia’s budgetary watchdog, the Accounting Chamber, also cautiously condemned police violence against the protesters, which has resulted in record numbers of detentions and disturbing footage of rubber-stick beatings.

“There was an unprecedented use of force at the recent protests,” Kudrin tweeted, posting a link to a press release on the violence from Putin’s largely liberal and mostly powerless Human Rights Council. “It is important publicly to investigate every episode. Everyone must always act within the law.”

Kudrin counts as a so-called “system liberal”, a Putin loyalist who is in favour of softer methods, so his statement is less unexpected than Chemezov’s. It’s important, however, that Kudrin, an economist who mostly keeps out of politics, has decided to weigh in this time.

The third dissenting opinion also came on August 21, from Sergey Karaganov, who has helped shape Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy in recent years as a key adviser to the Kremlin and who now heads the international economics and global policy department at the prestigious Higher School of Economics.

In an article for the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Karaganov issued a warning: “The ripples on the surface of the water can turn into a storm or a tsunami if, apart from suppressing protest, the authorities don’t start dealing with the deep-seated problems that are piling up in the nation. These are the economic stagnation, which is among the factors that have caused a shutdown of social mobility mechanisms for an overwhelming majority of people, and the gap between government and society. Besides, the elite and the government haven’t presented the country with a set of ideas that would make the nation’s life meaningful and future-oriented. Quite obvious also is the high degree of inequality, especially indecent in Russia with its almost genetic yearning for justice.”

Karaganov goes on to pay lip service to the foreign interference theory, but the dominant idea of his article is that the protests should be a wake-up call to the elite to start tackling the root causes of discontent. As an academic without a government or state company post, Karaganov has more freedom to express such ideas than Chemezov or Kudrin. He uses it to tell Putin that it’s time to move on from relying on Russians’ patriotic impulses and think of prosperity and opportunity instead.

Putin probably hears some of these arguments in private, too; in fact, he must have heard them before violence was unleashed on protesters in Moscow streets and foreign ambassadors were summoned to be told off for allegedly inciting disturbances. From his perspective, the government is already doing what’s necessary — that’s what the 12 so-called “national projects”, worth $400bn over six years, are meant to achieve. It’s just that not everyone has felt their impact yet. In Putin’s view, stability must be maintained in the meantime, and anti-Kremlin loudmouths, prodded on by Americans and Europeans, must be kept in check.

But even among Putin loyalists, faith in big government projects isn’t a given. These people know better than most others how the system works and how inefficiently it distributes benefits because of corruption and nepotism. Even if the cautious dissenters cannot persuade Putin to go softer, they can at least signal that, once a softening becomes possible — for example, after a 2024 transition — they will be among its backers.

No palace coup is brewing, but a preliminary alignment of forces for 2024 is taking place within the elite. This alignment shows there is a certain potential for a more liberal post-Putin regime.

• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg and its owners