Former Putin prime minister talks about his former boss

Mikhail Kasyanov tells Americans how he traveled the road from prime minister to Vladimir Putin to an outspoken leader of the Russian political opposition. His story of life inside the Kremlin reveals much about the enigmatic Putin.

Credit: ITAR-TASS / Mitya Aleshkovsky/Newscom
Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of the Russian People's Democratic Union, reacts during a press conference. In September, the leaders of major Russian opposition groups signed a formal agreement to form a coalition, entitled 'For A Russia Free of Arbitrary Rule and Corruption.'

It was a good question to put to Russian opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov as he made his rounds in Washington last week.

Mr. Kasyanov was once prime minister to former President Vladimir Putin. When Kasyanov visited with journalists and Russia experts at the German Marshall Fund on Oct. 19, he was asked what motivated him to become prime minister ... and what, later, convinced him that Russia was headed in the wrong direction.

The answer reveals as much about the enigmatic Mr. Putin, now in Kasyanov's old chair as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev, as it does about the frank-speaking Kasyanov, who is one of Russia's most prominent opposition figures.

Kasyanov explained that he and Putin struck a deal during the presidential election of 2000. If Kasyanov were to accept the premiership, he would want Putin's backing for major structural reforms – of the pension system, for instance, and the budget. Fine, agreed Putin. All Putin asked in return was for Kasyanov to stay out of his turf. No interference with the regions and their governors; no interference with security (Putin used to head the Russian security service, successor to the KGB).

All went swimmingly. But then Putin began to move on Russia's big businesses, including the October 2003 arrest of one of Russia's wealthiest men who also challenged the political status quo, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Then came the winter 2004 cut-off of Russian gas supplies to neighboring Belarus, governed by autocrat Alexander Lukashenko.

"It was minus 25 degrees in Minsk and Putin gave instructions to just cut gas supplies," Kasyanov recalls. The cutoff, over a dispute about pipeline ownership and prices, also affected Poland and Germany. "All the prime ministers of Central Europe were calling me," Kasyanov said. Putin "said to me, just, Lukashenko didn't respect him. That was the reason just of cutting gas for millions of customers.”

In the fall, the Beslan hostage crisis occurred, in which more than 300 people, including children, were killed. That resulted in political "reforms" that replaced elected regional governors with ones appointed by Putin.

Kasyanov continued: "I came up to him and I said, 'I cannot do anything more with you and your government'...He said, 'You're making a mistake. If the tax police comes to you, and you have problems, call me. But me, personally.' "

The tax man did come. So did thuggish pro-Kremlin youths when Kasyanov campaigned for president in the 2008 presidential election. He collected more than the requisite 2 million signatures to qualify for the ballot, but in the end, Putin's bureaucrats kept him off. After that, the youths left him alone.

"Putin believes that everything in this world can be purchased," said Kasyanov. And, being a former KGB man, Putin believes in the preservation of an iron-linked hierarchy. When Russian President Medvedev recently fired Moscow mayor and Putin loyalist, Yury Luzhkov, many in and outside of Russia wanted to believe it was a sign of independence on the part of the more liberally minded Medvedev.

But Putin was simply eliminating risk in a political relationship that was disturbing the chain of command, according to Kasyanov's interpretation. Luzhkov was lower in rank, and he had to go. Appearances sometimes to the contrary, Medvedev is not going to break from Putin, but is merely Putin's "senior assistant."

Of course, all of this is just one man's side of the story. Remember that Kasyanov used to be called "Misha 2 percent" for alleged kickbacks he took as Boris Yeltsin's finance minister – a charge he vigorously denies.

But who are you more inclined to believe? The former head of Russia's security services who has turned back democracy in that country? Or someone who campaigned in frigid weather, person to person, shut out from all major media, to collect a couple of million signatures so he could run for president?

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.