This surprisingly well-done spoof trailer, linked on FPA’s Russia Blog, I guess is one of many indicators that pre-election speculation is picking up steam.
The world of Kremlin watchers has certainly been befuddled by President Medvedev’s increasingly assertive policymaking and public statements. With the departure of Deputy PM Igor Sechin from the board of Rosneft, many believe that Medvedev’s reform agenda may have some real teeth. And given that in the past week both Medvedev and Putin have made ambiguous statements about their candidacy in the 2012 presidential elections, media have been abuzz with conspiracy theories and ‘analysis’.
On the one hand, speculation that Medvedev is growing in confidence and becoming more assertive is certainly justified. After all, it was just this past summer that he was opening up twitter accounts, hanging out with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and generally behaving very vice presidentially, whereas since then he has been cleaning house and acting in a manner more befitting his post. That said, I think it is important for Kremlin watchers to put Medvedev and Putin’s public statements in their proper context. It is unclear to me why things said in front of titular monarchs, or on CCTV, in Magnitogorsk, or after meeting washed up movie stars, should be given much credence.
On the other hand, there are important questions at stake. For example, at RFE, with a pretty good collection of supporting links, Brian Whitmore argues that aggressive state capitalism (“Putinism”) is gradually turning into Putinism Lite with Medvedev at the helm. As he puts it, should Medvedev remain president through 2012, “Russia will still be Russia Inc., it will just be a little less in your face about it.”
The question I have, then, is whether there is anything controversial about Putinism Lite, or Medvedev’s modernization agenda, that Putin himself would not approve of? It seems to me that talk of a rift is premature as long as the basic direction of the country has already been decided unanimously behind closed doors. I guess it just seems to me that there is still no concrete evidence that Putin has become less influential, and that he will remain so as long as he chooses.
In this vein, many op-eds try to draw parallels between Russia and other countries. I read one (Moscow News) suggesting Russia’s political transition may resemble China after Deng Xiaoping vacated his seat in government while remaining Communist Party Chair for quite some time. The caveat there is that the party Putin chairs, United Russia, does not have the same monopoly on power as the Chinese Communist Party. There was another op-ed (Vedomosti) comparing Russia to the USA and lamenting the lack of clarity about presidential candidates here, since in the US Barack Obama had long before announced preparations for his own run at re-election.
But maybe there are other analogies that can be made, beyond the world of geopolitics. Maybe something resembling the 2003 NBA all-star game will happen. The electorate (the fans) voted in young, pliant and hopeful Vince Carter as a starter to the Eastern Conference team (as a fellow alum of Jordan’s UNC, he was seen as a natural successor to Jordan), but on the day of the game, citing extraordinary circumstances, Vince Carter ignored the wishes of the fans and graciously stepped aside for Michael Jordan, who had returned the previous season after a 3+ year hiatus from playing basketball. This version gives me an excuse to post this: