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Are Russia's recent hints of reform grounded in real change?

As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin position themselves for next year's election, Russians are seeing hints of future reform. Is it genuine, or political posturing?

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Medvedev, who was Putin's handpicked successor, has talked a liberal game since arriving in the Kremlin 3 years ago, but has shown what activists here say is a disturbing inability to follow through on most of his pledges.

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"It's long been known that there is a two-party system behind the walls of the Kremlin," says Mr. Yurgens. "One is the stability party, whose current chief is Putin, and the other is the progress party, with Medvedev at its head. Of course we hope this coming election cycle will bring these out into the open, and give people a chance to decide."

Putin on board with reform?

In something of a surprise, one of 21 "expert groups" ordered by Putin in January to draft post-crisis revisions to the Russian government's official "Strategy 2020" development program has come to similar conclusions. The group, from the Moscow Center of Conservative and Social Policy, briefed Putin earlier this week and presented their findings to the presidium of the State Duma on Thursday, according to Russian media.

In the outline of their report (in Russian) the group offers five future scenarios that range from preserving the status quo, to tightening authoritarian screws, to different paces of democratization. But the authors make clear that the "suppression of pluralism" under Putin has harmed Russia's development and the price of sticking with the status quo would be that "the system will degrade even more, and its ability to solve problems will decrease." Cracking down further could stimulate "protest moods (among the population)... and bring nationalist politicians or even criminals to power in the regions."

"All 21 of these expert groups were ordered to focus on different aspects of the economy, and not to broach political issues at all," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "What is most remarkable is that economists are now telling them that they need to deal with institutional change, and come up with a strategy for political reforms, or there will be no possibility to complete any economic ones."

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday denied that any limitations had been placed upon the expert groups, and cautioned that their findings were merely advisory and not expressions of government policy.

Or is talk of change just political maneuvering?

Critics argue that the think tank debates are for public consumption only and that Russia's direction remains firmly in the hands of entrenched interests – particularly state-owned or Kremlin-friendly oil, gas and metals giants – who abhor the idea of sweeping democratic change.

"This activity is happening because of the upcoming elections. Putin and Medvedev have detected that their popularity is dropping, and so they are ginning up a PR campaign," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chair of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin coalition.

According to a poll published by the independent Levada Center in Moscow this week, Putin's approval rating has sunk to a six-year low of 69 percent, while Medvedev's slumped to 66 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2008. While these findings may not sound at all dire to Western readers, such trends are taken very seriously in Russia's tightly-managed political culture, where trust in top leaders is considered synonymous with patriotism.

Mr. Nemtsov, whose United Freedom Party is currently struggling to obtain official registration, says proof of change will come only in practice and not in academic papers.

"Our goal is to get our party registered and choose a united opposition candidate for the upcoming presidential elections," he says. "If that isn't allowed to happen, it means there's no genuine political competition, and all this talk of change is unreal."

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