MOSCOW, Russia — For the past few months, there has been one game in town: Who will be Russia’s next president?
It’s an implicit acknowledgement, by everyone from Russia’s largely Kremlin-friendly press to the country’s leaders themselves, that the presidential election slated for March is merely a formality. The question is: Will President Dmitry Medvedev stand for another term, or will Vladimir Putin, his predecessor, mentor and prime minister, announce his return to the top spot? Every day has brought a new reading of the tea leaves.
So when Medvedev unexpectedly scheduled a press conference for today, many thought they would get a clear signal. After all, it would be Medvedev’s first-ever long-form meeting with Russia’s domestic and foreign press, three years after becoming Russia’s president upon being touched by the golden hand of Putin. Why schedule a press conference — and your first at that — if you have nothing to say?
This afternoon, Russia’s chattering classes were left asking just that.
Medvedev refused to be drawn into revealing his presidential ambitions, or lack thereof, during a two hour meeting with 800 Russian and foreign journalists. After holding forth on his views about modernizing the country, what it means to fire officials and the hard-hitting issue of paid parking in Moscow, Medvedev was asked whether he planned to run in 2012. He appeared relieved: “You finally asked this question,” he said. “I thought it would be first.”
“You see, political life is not just a show,” he continued. “It’s not a show at all.” Yet what came next left many thinking that the press conference was merely the latest episode in an increasingly tedious show designed to keep Russians guessing for as long as possible.
“The whole point of the work we do is to achieve the goals we set,” Medvedev said. “Decisions of the kind you are talking about therefore must be made at the right moment, when all the right conditions are in place, otherwise they risk backfiring politically.” In other words: someone will become a sitting duck once the decision is announced.
Today’s tea leaves can be read one of two ways. Some will say Medvedev’s press conference was simply designed to raise his media profile (somewhat diminished by the fact that a rare foreign interview with Putin, by American magazine Outdoor Life, was published the same day). Others will see Medvedev dropping small hints that he does plan to step aside.
When a journalist asked Medvedev whether he saw the world objectively, considering that special arrangements are made to create an “ideal” picture of the country for the president, he answered by saying he got information from all sorts of sources, including blogs and Twitter. “No one looked at this before me,” he said. “And I think that any leader who comes after me should act like this, because those are the laws of information life in today’s world.” He mentioned “future generations” of Russian leaders in a question on foreign policy, and what the country’s next government should look like when asked about firing ineffective officials. These are not the statements of someone who plans to stick around forever.
Despite three years at Russia’s helm, Medvedev continues to be seen as playing second fiddle to Putin — perhaps now more than ever.
Since the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Russians have grown increasingly tired of the country’s ruling duo and its leading party, United Russia. Yet after years of clamping down on political opposition, no serious alternatives remain. According to research released today by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, United Russia has 57 percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 17 percent and the far-right LDPR with 14 percent.
And while political pundits, journalists, foreign investors and bureaucrats themselves play the endless game of “Who will be Russia’s next president?” it turns out few Russians care. A Levada Center poll released last month found that the bulk of respondents, 38 percent, didn’t really care when the presidential decision would be made.