Why Russia's Medvedev and Putin remain coy about presidential aims

Some analysts say a declaration by either President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin could upend Russian politics well ahead of next year's presidential vote.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a news conference at a business school in Skolkovo, outside Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, May 18. Medvedev says he will decide whether to seek a second term when the election comes closer.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fielded dozens of queries Wednesday in his first major press conference since arriving at the Kremlin three years ago.

But Mr. Medvedev avoided the two questions most journalists wanted answered: What's behind the rift between the president and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and when will Russians will know which of them will become the establishment pick in upcoming presidential elections?

"Such decisions should be made at a time when the conditions are right and they can make a conclusive political impact," Medvedev said in response to a question about whether he is planning to run for reelection. "The electoral process is governed by certain rules, which I will follow. If I decide to make such an announcement, I will make it," he said, adding that it might be soon.

Russia's leading politicians are locked in silence about their intentions and act as though any open discussion of the upcoming election cycle – Duma polls in December, followed by a presidential election in March – could destabilize Russia's political system. Indeed, many analysts agree that early declarations about presidential aims could upend domestic politics.

"The problem is that if either Putin or Medvedev openly declares himself as a presidential candidate, in our system it means he is not just a candidate but the next president of Russia," says Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia Party. "In the US system, we know that Obama will face competition, and may not be elected. But if Medvedev were to say he's running, it means that Putin is not. And in that case, all official resources would immediately flow away from Putin and go to Medvedev. There would be chaos within Russia's elite."

The system of "managed democracy," instituted during Putin's first two terms as president, ensures that official resources and media access are handed to the Kremlin's chosen candidates, while undesirable opponents are stricken from the ballot, harassed by police and, it's frequently been alleged, drowned out by vote-rigging on election day.

When Putin reached the end of his second consecutive term – the limit stipulated under Russia's Constitution – he stepped down, but organized an elaborate process under which his longtime protégé, Medvedev, was elected president while he took on the powerful roles of prime minister and head of the ruling United Russia Party.

For the past three years, the two have ruled Russia in an apparently friendly "tandem," but many signs suggest that Putin is really running the store. Experts point out that Medvedev, who enjoys vast powers under Russia's Kremlin-centric Constitution, remains surrounded by officials appointed by Putin and has seemed incapable of following through on his frequent rhetorical pledges of reform.

Medvedev answered a question about his relations with Putin by saying the two see eye-to-eye about most things, and "differ only in details."

"It is a relationship that has developed over more than 20 years," he said. "We know each other and understand each other well. We really are like-minded. Whatever may be said about this sometimes, we have very similar approaches to the key issues of the development of the country... . Every person has the right to his own impressions and his own approaches, but on strategy we are close, otherwise we would just not be able to work, and if we could not work, this political partnership would have fallen apart."

A leading Russian newscaster asked Medvedev whether there is any chance that he might run against Putin in an open election, an idea that has been widely discussed in Russia's freewheeling blogosphere as a way to kick-start a genuine two-party system in what remains an autocratic political landscape.

Perhaps tellingly, Medvedev did not respond directly to that question, but did suggest that he might soon join a political party – a move that would make him the first Russian leader to do so. (Putin heads United Russia, but is not a member of the party).

Medvedev did answer questions about parking in downtown Moscow, getting a natural gas hookup for a countryside dacha community, and the problems of reindeer herders in the Arctic. He also warned the US that if Russian issues are not addressed in plans for a European missile shield, Moscow might have to increase its strike capabilities.

"It would be a very bad scenario. This would be a scenario that would throw us back into the cold war era," he said.

While he was mum on aspirations to seek reelection, other developments appear to suggest he may try for another term.

This week, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, an open supporter of Medvedev, announced that he would take the helm of the tiny, liberal Right Cause Party, which some analysts speculate could become a vehicle for Medvedev's reelection. But in the course of his two-hour-long press conference Wednesday, Medvedev did not address that issue, either.

"I cannot understand this game myself," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti agency. "Given that in our country there is no real election struggle, just theatrical decorations, probably somebody advised him not to say anything right now... . The issue of succession has always been complicated for our leaders, no matter who they were – czars, general secretaries, or presidents. But Putin chose a person whom he knew very well for years and who had served him well. So, at least during Medvedev's first term, there were no anti-Putin steps at all, so in this sense, Medvedev has justified Putin's expectations."

Last week, Putin began creating a broad public "civic front" to support him, a move that many analysts believe is the first step in his own still-unannounced campaign to return to the Kremlin.

"Obviously, Medvedev wanted his press conference to be a response to Putin's declaration of a popular front," says Yulia Latynina, an independent journalist and radio commentator. But, she says, he gave such a weak and rambling performance, devoid of any strategic vision, "that all he demonstrated is that he has no political base at all ... . Medvedev is clearly not presidential material and, come to think of it, that's probably why Putin made him president in the first place."

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