* Seeks to hold next Putin administration to account
* Fiscal hawk rules out role in next government
* Could bolster chances of return to high office
By Douglas Busvine
MOSCOW, April 5 (Reuters) - Russia’s ex-finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, launched a civic task force on Thursday that is designed to hold the next government to account and positions him as an influential political outsider.
Kudrin has ruled out serving under outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, who is poised to take over the premiership in a job swap with Russia’s long-time leader Vladimir Putin, who won a presidential election last month.
Instead, by launching the Civic Initiatives Committee, Kudrin will seek to influence policy, offer a platform for the emerging liberal opposition and, say commentators, bolster his chances of an eventual return to high office.
“The recent elections show that people want to take part in resolving society’s problems and choose the country’s path of development,” Kudrin, flanked by members of the group, told a packed news conference at a Moscow business centre.
“We must help fulfil this task - we want to help develop the institutions of a civic society and help citizens, civic groups and professional people to find their role.”
Kudrin, 51, is a fiscal hawk who in his 11 years as finance minister earned the respect of investors by restoring the public finances to health from a humiliating default and devaluation in 1998.
He was ousted last September in a row that followed the announcement by Putin and Medvedev that they would switch roles after December’s parliamentary and March’s presidential votes.
Although Kudrin clashed with Medvedev at the time over rising public spending, he was widely believed to have been disappointed not to have been offered the post of prime minister in the next Putin administration.
Kudrin was later described by Putin as a close friend. He is a regular visitor to the Finance Ministry, where sources say he is still advising his successor, Anton Siluanov, on economic policy.
But he has also criticised the conduct of the elections, joining opposition protests against alleged ballot fraud in favour of Russia’s ruling political party and Putin.
In a statement, Kudrin’s 37-strong committee said it would “openly oppose the actions of the powers that be, regardless of personalities or job titles”.
Kudrin has conducted extensive consultations with opposition groups and said he was prepared to work with a liberal party that billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran third in the presidential vote, plans to found.
Kudrin, who did not vote in the presidential election, has ruled out leading a political party, however, saying his committee would focus on issues like electoral reform, fighting corruption and overhauling the police and courts.
On the panel are some well-known public figures, including television talk show host Vladimir Pozner, Kirov regional governor Nikita Belykh and Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Centre for Strategic Initiatives think tank.
In a potentially embarrassing oversight, however, the names of two journalists were included in error on the committee list, one of them said.
Commentators have described Kudrin’s initiative as a ‘shadow government’ that could position him for a return to government should Medvedev - who has yet to form a cabinet team - stumble as prime minister.
“It looks as though a pre-programmed conflict is appearing in the upper echelons of power,” columnist Mikhail Rostovsky wrote recently in mass-circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
“Putin continues to view Kudrin as his economic guru and as someone who absolutely has to return to his team.”
Kudrin’s policy think tank could also compete with an ‘open government’ initiative patronised by Medvedev that has also discussed fighting corruption and reforming the economy.
Committee member Igor Yurgens, who also heads a think tank seen as close to Medvedev, said talk of a shadow government was overdone: “There will be intellectual competition - there’s no doubt about that,” Yurgens told Reuters.