One of Vladimir Putin's former political allies says that Russia has embarked on the “worst-case scenario” since Mr Putin returned to the presidency in May.
Alexei Kudrin, who until late last year was Russia's finance minister, said that the government appeared determined to crack down on opposition leaders and “keep them inside strict boundaries”.
The remarks come ahead of a major street protest planned against Mr Putin's rule, and on the day that the Russian parliament expelled Gennady Gudkov, an MP who has become a vocal critic of Mr Putin.
Mr Kudrin, who spent 11 years as finance minister and was widely respected in Russia and internationally, was regarded as one of the few people in the Russian elite who spoke to Mr Putin as an equal, but left the government late last year after an argument with Dmitry Medvedev, then the President and now Prime Minister.
Since then, he has been keeping a low profile and avoiding questions about his future.
In an interview at the sidelines of a political forum in Ukraine today, he spoke cautiously, making long pauses before answering questions and often offering a knowing laugh instead of a full answer.
Nevertheless, he criticised the path that the government has taken since Mr Putin's re-election, with new laws increasing the fines for protesting, and criminal cases being prepared against some opposition leaders. “In a better scenario, there would be some kind of dialogue, but perhaps that won't happen,” said Mr Kudrin. He suggested that a re-run of last December's parliamentary elections, in which a win for Mr Putin's United Russia party amid widespread allegations of vote rigging proved the spark for the protest movement, would be beneficial. “Even this step would immediately calm the situation down,” he said.
However all the signs are that Mr Putin has taken a different course, with a raft of conservative laws being pushed through the Duma, the Russian parliament.
Today, Mr Gudkov was stripped of his Duma mandate for failing to give up his business activities. A former KGB agent, Mr Gudkov is an unlikely opposition leader, and was part of a party that was set up with Kremlin support to be a “loyal opposition” but which has become more radically opposed to the government in recent months.
He claims that many MPs from Mr Putin's party have similar business interests and that the charges against him are politically motivated. “Everything happening here is a lawless show trial. It is a political vendetta and extrajudicial punishment,” said Mr Gudkov today. He warned that the country had taken “a step towards civil war”.
A major street protest is planned in Moscow tomorrow, the latest in a series of opposition rallies, though it is unclear what the next move for the opposition is, given a lack of dialogue with the authorities and few results to show for the street protests that began nine months ago.
Mr Kudrin said today it was “hard to say” whether he would fully join the street protest movement, and also refused to comment on rumours that he is still close to Mr Putin and could return to the government as Prime Minister in the near future.
Asked about rumours that in the coming months Mr Putin is preparing to toss aside Mr Medvedev, who was president until May but always played a secondary role to Mr Putin, Mr Kudrin smiled: “Medvedev has not been sidelined, yet,” he said.
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