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One Nation, Two Visions: Observers Across the Political Spectrum Say They See Political Motives Behind Putin's New Initiative

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government has been working hard to develop an alternative innovation strategy to rival that of President Dmitry Medvedev ­ yet more proof that Russia's two paramount leaders hold increasingly divergent views of how the country should move forward. In a ground-breaking speech to party loyalists on Friday, Putin announced the formation of a new Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI), which will promote "a new business model" based on innovation, curb bureaucracy in public administration and recruit, retrain and retain young Russian professionals.

The local media reported on Tuesday that Putin's innovation strategy is a clear attempt by the Russian White House to develop a new state-supported innovation infrastructure to rival President Dmitry Medvedev's ambitious innovation program. The new agency, which should be operational as early as 2012, is expected to receive the status of a government ministry and assume some of the functions of the Ministries of Economic Development and Education, the Kommersant business daily reported on Tuesday citing government sources. It will also coordinate innovation policy in state departments and oversee the work of several state scientific agencies, including the federally-sponsored ad-hoc programs, the newspaper said. The project is still a work in progress and its development will be carried out on a voluntary basis, Kommersant said.

Putin announced the formation of the Agency at a United Russia conference in Volgograd on Friday, but stopped short of giving full details of the future project. However, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov confirmed that "the Agency for Strategic Initiatives is being created as a public institution under the Prime Minister," ITAR-TASS reported. The idea to create the agency "wholly belongs to Putin," Peskov said. He explained that the agency would "become a springboard for projects as well as for people in need of support in order to make a quantum leap." "It is a new platform for promoting interesting and modern projects, including ­ and especially ­ in the social sphere," he said. Putin said Friday that he would prefer to appoint one of his aides to manage the agency at the initial stage, so that he could use "administrative resources" ­ a euphemism for official position and connections to government institutions ­ but that a permanent head will eventually be selected on a competitive basis.

The prime minister also outlined some of the key areas of activity for the new agency, saying that it will strive to court businesses by giving administrative assistance to start ups, "taking regulatory actions to reduce market entry barriers" and "improving industry standards and regulations." Putin also talked about grooming young professionals through a new system of professional qualifications and of the need to jettison rigid bureaucratic models of staff turnover in public and private organizations. "The form and structure of the agency could be modified if there is a necessity," Peskov told Kommersant. "There is no immediate need to multiply the federal agencies [but] changes in the agency's status in the long-run will depend on its efficiency."

Putin's agency is also expected to supplant a similar agency headed by president Medvedev, as the sole innovation center in the country, according to media reports. The establishment of ASI as the country's primary innovation agency is a foregone conclusion, Kommersant reported Tuesday, citing a source familiar with the project in the presidential administration. Putin's innovation ideology has evolved, and the president's hi-tech research hub in Skolkovo has been assigned a back seat, the source said. "The Agency for Strategic Initiatives will be the pivot of all the regulatory and financial flows for new projects by 2012, ahead of a widely expected government reshuffle," the paper quoted its source as saying. But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the government has no plans to reduce the role of the Skolkovo high-tech hub or any other innovation institutions. "The existing arrangements will continue to work and the agency [ASI] would only be a part of this market," Peskov said.

But there are no salient differences between Putin's and Medvedev's innovation programs, at least in the way they are being presented so far. Over the past three years, many Russians have come to identify Medvedev with his signature programs of innovation and modernization in much the same way as Mikhail Gorbachev was famous or infamous for his perestroika. President Medvedev regularly presides over a Presidential Commission for Modernization and Technological Development of Russia's Economy and has been aggressively promoting a hi-tech research hub in Skolkovo, dubbed Russia's Silicon Valley. The main difference being that the president has placed some emphasis on the role of foreign experts in seeing through his innovation program, while the prime minister has not.

With the prime minister's patriotic credentials, this is hardly surprising, experts say. His vision has been to create a replica of America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Department of Defense agency responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military, Kommersant daily reported on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources. DARPA was established in 1958 to help prevent technological surprises to the United States, the like of the launch of Soviet Sputnik in 1957. But the agency is also at work to create technological surprise for its enemies. Putin's ASI, the newspaper said, fits both agendas. Having failed to launch innovative processes using bureaucratic methods, the Russian White House would want to create an independent innovation agency before elections and reintegrate into the government afterward, the newspaper said.

As the two leaders continue to live the metaphor of the double-headed eagle emblazoned on the country's coat of arms, their public actions are becoming increasingly contradictory. In March last year president Medvedev disbanded the Federal Agency for Science and Innovations and the Federal Agency for Education, which were established in 2004 by President Vladimir Putin, and handed their functions to the Ministry of Education and Science. Some prominent Russian scientists, including Gennady Mesyats, a vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, hailed the decision, saying that their creation had been "a wrong move," RIA Novosti reported. But, in a parallel move, Putin announced that he has taken charge of the Government Commission on High Technology and Innovation, until then headed by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Putin invested the commission with broad new powers to enforce its modernization agenda and promised to spend more than a tenth of its budget on science and innovation.

But observers said that with Putin at the helm, the government commission would rival a similar structure headed by President Dmitry Medvedev, RIA Novosti reported, citing analysts' opinions. The analysts also linked Putin's decision to take over his Cabinet's high-tech commission to presidential elections due in 2012, the agency reported. Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with the Indem think tank, said the creation of an alternative agency marks a new low point in the intensifying power struggle within the ruling tandem.

"Before, Putin played a more paternalistic role in the tandem, while Medvedev was regarded as the sole innovator and modernizer," Korgunyuk said. "But with the latest move to create an Agency for Strategic Initiatives, Putin is trying to show that he too can be an innovator as well as a modernizer. Since both of them clearly want to be president in 2012, Putin is trying to be more creative and a step ahead.

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