Who needs a punchline?

I was really surprised to see how many journalists and Russia-watchers said that Wednesday’s press conference in Skolkovo had turned out to be a disappointment. To me it was not the least bit disappointing. On the contrary, it was damn interesting to watch. Oh, sorry: did anyone really expect a big announcement? I hope not. As Medvedev rightly put it, the time is not ripe yet. Moreover, clearly, Medvedev cannot announce his candidacy before a capable political force announces that it would support it. And this way, the President’s candidacy might as well be announced by the All-Russia People’s Front, even if Medvedev again used the word “Я” repeatedly in his sentence when asked about the big announcement. Meanwhile, he did drop quite a few interesting sentences about “the next government”, Mikhail Hodorkovsky, or the demise of Sergey Mironov. On the other hand, he didn’t touch on the new leader of the Right Cause party, Mikhail Prokhorov. Was this then an act of surrendering or further window-dressing?

I can’t emphasise enough how times change. One of the biggest mistakes of Cold War kremlinology was to assume that even if leaders change sometimes, the system will remain intact. Then came the perestroika. Now Russia-watchers seem to assume that even if officials change positions, Vladimir Putin remains the only man in charge and therefore it is right to expect him to return to the presidency. Now, one of the most interesting opinion pieces of last week’s Russian press seems to refute this. Dmitry Orlov of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication argues in Vedomosti that “already in the not-so-distant future the core of the elite – the most influential 25-30 Russian politicians and businessmen – will work out a consolidated position to support a single candidate. This will happen by the end of the summer.” This adds to my previous argument that there is no rift at the higher levels of the tandem and that every decision will have to be worked out very cautiously not to upset the stability of elites.
If we look at Medvedev’s Skolkovo press conference, we can see how confident and easy he behaved – except for one question, namely the one concerning his 2012 nomination. Then he uttered long and hardly comprehensible sentences, stressing the need for “a right time” to make such an announcement. This may suggest that the President himself knows that his candidacy will not depend on him announcing it, but on United Russia or the People’s Front giving its support. Otherwise, where would this support come from?
Some suggest that Mikhail Prokhorov’s ascendance to the helm of Right Cause and the party’s announcement about throwing its support behind the President might signify that Prokhorov prepares the party for Medvedev. I cannot agree with this. In Russia, you can always see how important the authorities deem a cause from the person whom they put in charge for it. For example: Dmitry Rogozin, who is quite far from being a very “diplomatic” person, to say the least, is in charge for NATO-Russia relations. Got it? Mikhail Prokhorov, a man with a frequently exposed lush lifestyle, who has recently proposed the introduction of a 60-hours working week, simply cannot be able to garner popular support for anyone beyond the gates of Moscow and St. Petersburg. If this had been the plan, they would have gone with Aleksey Kudrin, Igor Shuvalov or Arkady Dvorkovich. This way, it cannot work, and Russia’s leaders know it (I discussed some of the reasons for the apparent cancellation of the “Right Cause Plan” here). As for A Just Russia, some suggested that by the demise of Sergey Mironov, the government tries to rebrand the party as a fully opposition one, paving the way for Dmitry Medvedev. I find even the first part of this suggestion hardly believable (given that A Just Russia has just been deprived of a lot of institutional resources that will make it hard for the party to stay in the Duma after December), but the second one sounds like a clear nonsense to me. But why don’t we just see what Medvedev had to say about this issue in Skolkovo?
“If I run for presidency, of course, I would like to rely on some political forces, because otherwise, it would be impossible. These forces are political parties. Which ones? You know, we do not have many of them. (…) On which to rely? Well, if I start to think about that, I hope to rely also on those who have put me forward. This is for first. Second, can a president create his own political force? Yes, I think he can. There’s nothing wrong there.”
Medvedev did not make any reference to Prokhorov or A Just Russia, which, I think, clearly indicates that although these two parties are willing to support the President, he cannot take them seriously and does not want to associate himself with them. He’s right: it would be a PR-suicide. This, as Olga Khryshtanovskaya puts it so rightly in today’s NezGaz, means that Medvedev counts on the support of United Russia. This, effectively, exludes the possibility of Medvedev and Putin both running for presidency. Of course, as I have blogged earlier, it would be detrimental also to the political stability of Russia, which Vladimir Putin – not the sole, but still relatively the most influential leader – wants and has to protect.
Another thing I very much agree with Khryshtanovskaya in is that the decision is being postponed not to harm the performance of United Russia and the Popular Front at this year’s Duma elections. Yes, Vladimir Putin is still the best political brand in Russia and perhaps even more importantly, he still serves as a personal guarantee for the siloviki that they will not entirely be put out to grass in the near future. For some reasons I dwelled on in my previous entry, his reclaiming the presidency would be a serious setback with equally serious consequences. At the same time, if Putin wanted to be a candidate, he could be put forward right now by United Russia without any serious doubts about the outcome of the election. The reason why they’re not doing this can only mean that the tandem would like to ensure that Medvedev has the support of at least the sound majority of those “25-30 influential people”.
The summer will be hot in Russia.
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