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Russia gets ready to vote — sort of

Putin launches Russia’s election season. His Russian road trip runs into some obstacles. Then he compares himself to FDR. Moscow’s mayor is in trouble. Oligarchs do battle over a major company. Moscow welcomes a new fancy hotel.

Vladimir Putin

Top News: Russia’s pre-election season has begun. The elections must be right around the corner, you say? Not quite. Parliamentary elections are set for December 2011 and the presidential vote for March 2012. United Russia, the ruling party that supports President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, must be losing their grip on power? Also not the case. But in a country like Russia, traditionally fronted by a paranoid leadership, better safe than sorry.

The electoral season was unofficially launched in late August, when Putin went on a cross-country road trip (think of it as the Russian version of John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” but without the straight talk or the bus). Putin climbed into a canary yellow Lada Kalina, the newest model of the Russian-made car, and drove 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) across the Russian heartland, TV cameras in tow. Nightly, the nation was subjected to an update on Putin’s travels. They saw him complain about the price of gas and the quality of roads. He gave several lengthy interviews, hosting a rotating slew of journalists in the passenger seat. His support for the Lada drove shares in its maker, Avtovaz, up 18 percent. It didn’t all go smoothly, though. A video filmed by onlookers quickly made its way to the internet, garnering hundreds of thousands of views: Putin’s Lada in the midst of a massive motorcade – which included in its number two extra yellow Ladas in case his broke down (thus confirming the belief that the Lada will forever be a joke of a car).

The trip and its concomitant interviews — which followed quickly on the heels of Putin’s firefighting stunt and tough guy meeting with bikers, not to mention his very manly shooting of a whale with a dart from a crossbow — has Russia abuzz with the belief that Putin is seeking to return to the presidency in 2012. Quick reminder: He had to step down in 2008, making way for his chosen successor Medvedev, because the constitution forbids more than two consecutive terms.

Putin addressed the topic himself last week. When asked, during a meeting with a group of Western experts on Russia, whether he would return to the presidency, he answered: “The president of the United States, Roosevelt, was elected four times in a row because it did not contradict the American Constitution.” If Putin’s past behavior is anything to by, most likely he will keep Russia — and the world — guessing as to his plans until the very last minute. But right now, it’s looking very likely that he’ll be back. And for a long time — upon taking office, Medvedev implemented constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from four to six years.

The pre-election buzz is also believed to behind the growing scandal around Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Medvedev has replaced over 20 governors since taking office, and Luzhkov is one of the few who remain. State TV has launched a dirty campaign against him, and his billionaire wife, but Luzhkov is standing his ground. Several replacements, all Kremlin favorites, are already being floated.

Money: The uncertainty around Luzhkov’s fate has begun to effect the economy. Eurobonds issued by the Bank of Moscow, a top Russian bank controlled by the Moscow city government, have fallen to a two-month low, indicating investor weariness with the scandal.

The oligarch shareholders in Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, have stepped up their battle for control over the company. Metals tycoons Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Potanin are struggling over shareholder representation on Norilsk’s board. The government has so far remained outside the dispute, but that may change if the oligarchs keep sparring publicly. On Wednesday, Deripaska again spoke out about the affair, accusing the other side of “abusing the other shareholders.”

The government will soon start considering a new three-year budget, which sees a minimal rise in spending as it seeks to close its first budget deficit in a decade. The deficit has widened so far this year to 645.8 billion rubles (nearly $21 billion), or 2.3 percent of GDP. Partly aiming to remedy that, the government has also announced it will soon launch a new round of privatizations, hoping to raise up to $50 billion over the next five years.

Elsewhere: Business travelers rejoice! (Those of you thinking 'Does Moscow really need another $700/night hotel?' keep quiet). A new luxury hotel is opening this weekend in the capital. Lotte Hotel looks pretty snazzy, and is located just down the street from the Foreign Ministry, off of the pleasantly touristy Arbat street.

Remember when everyone was singing “the Trololo song,” after Soviet crooner Edmund Hill refound fame via his bizarre clip being placed on YouTube? Have you been asking yourself ever since, “Gee, why doesn’t a Russian pop star take the success of that clip very seriously and release his own sexified version?” Look no further, I herewith present pop star (and Eurovision veteran) Dima Bilan singing Trololo.