Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's decision to fire Moscow's long entrenched mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is the most decisive move he has made in his presidency. Is it really part of his drive to modernise Russia, or part of an emerging power play with Moscow's real strong man, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?
Anatoly Chubais, the father of Russian privatisation in the 1990s and the current head of the country's nano-technology conglomerate RosNano, recently admitted that the prospects for political modernisation in Russia are dim. "Today," he said, "no demand for it exists. Such demand requires a social group to promote it." He went even further in a conversation with foreign investors, suggesting that the threat of fascism in Russia will grow to the point that "discussions about Putin and Medvedev, Medvedev or Putin, will pale in comparison".
This gloomy view might be explained by the interest Mr Chubais has in stopping the West from challenging Russia's rulers for violating human rights and curtailing freedom. To avoid an even worse alternative, the United States and Europe should support the Putin-Medvedev tandem, in the hope that they provide a stable and secure environment for investment. Mr Chubais, a one-time reformer, is now totally complicit in the regime's policies. Nevertheless, he is telling the truth.
Russia's chief moderniser and protégé of Mr Medvedev, Igor Yurgens of the Institute of Contemporary Development, thinks in much the same way. Indeed, he suggests that Russians "are not citizens, but rather some sort of tribe", and that the archaic character of Russian society is not likely to change before 2050. Of course, Russian politicians are always fond of assigning a due date for change: Nikita Khrushchev once memorably promised to build communism in 20 years. But what matters here is a common perception that Russians are not ready to assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Once again, all the formulas for western-type democracy depend on the will of an enlightened and benevolent czar.
Mr Medvedev is currently seeking to perform this role. Once he brings about truly modernising reforms, people will supposedly follow willingly, forgetting centuries of serfdom, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the political chaos and economic free-fall of the 1990s, and the decade of Mr Putin's managed democracy. But neither Khrushchev, nor Mikhail Gorbachev, nor Boris Yeltsin were able to uproot Russia's stubborn culture of indifference and subordination, precisely because they insisted on top-down change and expected that the Russian people would simply acquiesce en masse.
Will Mr Medvedev succeed where all others have failed? Most analysts suggest that the visible disagreement between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev over Mr Luzhkov's fate is a sign of a looming contest for the presidency in 2012. Mr Luzhkov, after all, had been vocally critical of Mr Medvedev, while praising Mr Putin - allegedly an attempt to drive a wedge between the two. So, in this scenario, unmasking Mr Luzhkov as corrupt and incompetent, and using him as a scapegoat for Russia's systemic inefficiency, is intended as a way for Mr Medvedev to sway public opinion behind him and make Mr Putin appear out of touch. The problem, though, is that Mr Medvedev, like Mr Luzhkov, was also mostly invisible during the summer's disastrous heat wave, whereas Mr Putin was everywhere, even piloting fire-fighting airplanes over burning forests.
Since Mr Putin did not formally take sides over what would happen to Mr Luzhkov, had Mr Medvedev's campaign against Moscow's former mayor failed, the president would have found himself without a job in 2012. He would be forced to join Russia's pathetic opposition, which bears part of the blame for the country's toxic political culture. The opposition - led by Boris Nemtsov, the former leader of the now-defunct Union of Right Forces, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, chess master Garry Kasparov, and the writer Edward Limonov - has no coherent message with which to win support or provide a credible alternative to the country's current leadership. So the power elite fight among themselves, because there is no one else to fight with.
Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York © Project Syndicate 2010