In less than a month 109 million Russian voters are going to elect a new president. But while the Russian political class has been anxiously anticipating the March 2 vote for the last four years, there are strikingly few overt signs of the impending event.
The key question about the identity of the successor was answered in mid-December, when President Vladimir Putin embraced Dmitry Medvedev, his long-time loyal aide, as his candidate of choice, and since then the deafening propaganda campaign about Putin’s monumental role in leading Russia has been strongly toned down. There is nothing resembling the feverish rallies of the last month of the December parliamentary elections. Such pep rallies would probably look odd, as Medvedev’s victory is all but guaranteed. But the question remains about whether there was any point in staging them last autumn, since the triumph of Putin’s United Russia party was also never in doubt (Gazeta.ru, Ekho Moskvy, February 1).
The deliberate elimination of any “campaigning” from Medvedev’s steady march to the presidency was exemplified by three carefully measured steps taken by the Kremlin last week. First came the removal from the race of Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister and a leader of the “discontented” opposition, as the Central Electoral Commission refused to register his candidacy on technicalities (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 28). Second was the announcement that Medvedev would not partake in the televised debates with other candidates, citing the heavy workload associated with his still being a first deputy prime minister (Kommersant, January 29). The third step was the disbandment of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Ours), presumably since their hyperactive marching had become pointless and embarrassing (RIA-Novosti, January 31). None of these measures was driven by necessity, as Kasyanov was unlikely to capture more than a few percent of “die-hard” liberal votes, but apparently the Putin/Medvedev team is firmly set on maintaining the impression of being in complete control of reformatting the political mechanism.
Opinion polls show that Medvedev is going to capture up to 75% of the votes in the first round, so his trips to the regions look more like inspections by the new boss than efforts to widen his popular appeal (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 2). His newly launched website (www.medvedev2008.ru) presents a minimum of personal information but many quotes emphasizing his unwavering attention to social issues. He is expected to unveil an electoral platform in the coming days, and this collection of promises might excite the pack of Moscow commentators who desperately try to find political news (Ekspert, January 28). So far, Medvedev has shown no inclination to do a serious analysis of any domestic problem, and one of the few distinctive features of his self-promotion has been the absence of anti-Western rhetoric and the lack of bragging about Russia’s military strength.
Putin has also cut down on poignant remarks and aggressive statements such as his memorable Munich speech of a year ago. It is only Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff, who keeps mentioning Russian “counter-measures” against the deployment of U.S. strategic defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, while clearly feeling uncomfortable in the role of “Alpha hawk,” as he is by nature a quiet professional (Ezhednevny zhurnal, January 22). This silence of the siloviki, a powerful clique that had been Putin’s main power base until their squabbles escalated to public clashes last autumn, is quite remarkable. Sergei Ivanov, who was widely considered to be the presidential candidate preferred by various “power structures,” made only one – and rather unenviable – public appearance last week. Chairing a meeting of the Federal Space Agency he had to admit the shortcomings of the much-advertised Global Navigation System (GLONASS), which had enjoyed plenty of presidential attention – but turned out to be far less accurate and reliable than the U.S.-operated GPS (Kommersant, January 24; RIA-Novosti, January 31).
Treading lightly over foreign policy and security matters, both Putin and Medvedev have spared no time for Gazprom, which has been busy orchestrating its advances in the Balkans aimed at derailing the EU-supported Nabucco pipeline project (see EDM, January 29). This did not prevent a 20% tumble in the price of Gazprom shares on the Moscow stock exchange during the volatile second half of January, but at least one crucially important question for the company’s management appears to be answered. Upon assuming the presidency, Medvedev would have to leave his position as Gazprom’s chairman of the Board – and last week it became clear that his successor there would be Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov (Kommersant, Vedomosti, January 31). After his surprise promotion last September, Zubkov loyally played his role in Putin’s “cover-up” operation to embrace Medvedev instead of Ivanov or any other candidate with siloviki connections. His unmistakably Soviet style of leadership has often been ridiculed, but he has also shown a firm grasp of personnel matters, which might indeed be necessary to check the warring factions in Gazprom’s management.
As smoothly and tightly managed as this process of transplanting a few key figures in the state hierarchy (while reassuring others that their jobs are safe) appears to be, its logic remains twisted in many directions. Is Medvedev really preparing to assume the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Does Putin really want to struggle with the ungrateful tasks of reforming the pension, health care, and communal housing systems? The voters are prepared to approve the dubious duumvirate scheme on a “don’t ask-don’t tell” basis, but the legitimacy of this “outside the ballot box” arrangement is pinned upon an uninterrupted run of good fortune (Ezhednevny zhurnal, February 1). During the petro-prosperity period, hopes for a better life transformed into feelings of entitlement – and the Kremlin is now teetering on the brink of disappointing this “irrational exuberance.” This betrayal of the social contract, which curtails democracy but guarantees prosperity, could destroy the legitimacy of Putin’s system of power, already weakened by the diminution of the siloviki. Dull quasi-elections may buy time for Messrs Putin, Medvedev, Zubkov and their courtiers, who are preparing for politics as usual.