MOSCOW — Less than a year before the presidential election, with the country ruled in deep secrecy, political discourse has been reduced to parsing every remark by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev for signs of their intentions.
Neither has said whether he will run, but the exercise has produced a lively political horse race, with one sounding presidential and a certain candidate one week, only to fall victim to a barbed comment from the other and lag behind, out of the running, the next.
If only, lament those watching from the sidelines, it were true.
“I believe there is no competition,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party and a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences who studies the decision-making elite. “Our politics are a theater. There are directors and a script. And for some reason they love it when the public says there are conflicts.”
Lilia Shevtsova, a mordant critic of the administration and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, uses remarkably similar language in reaching a comparable conclusion. “There are no politics,” she says. “Politics exist where you have an independent media, attentive audience and unpredictable script. What’s interesting is that the Kremlin supports this story-telling.”
In the Soviet era, outsiders divined the workings of the Politburo by studying Red Square parades to see who was standing next to whom on top of Lenin’s tomb. This approach turned out to have limitations when the internal weakness, and then collapse, of the Soviet system took much of the world by surprise.
Today’s Kremlinologists rely on public comments that may eventually prove just as misleading.
“I think it’s almost the same as in Soviet times,” says Kryshtanovskaya, who still watches who sits in which government seats. She says that Medvedev only replaced two of the 75 officials he inherited from Putin, a comment on his lack of power and Putin’s reach. “He’s a general without an army,” she says.
Shevtsova also sees a resemblance between the Kremlinology of the Leonid Brezhnev years — Brezhnev was head of the Soviet Union from 1964 until he died in 1982 — and now. “We have personalized power now, as we did then,” she says, “and we all have to remain guessers. We still are wondering who is behind the curtain.”
Putin served two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, when he was prevented by term limitations from running again. He picked Medvedev, once his chief of staff, to run for president, and Medvedev not only succeeded him but appointed Putin as prime minister. Ever since there have been two big questions. Could Medvedev emerge as a politician with a mind of his own and the power to make decisions? With Putin again eligible, who would run for president in 2012?
Neither has said who will run, creating much back and forth about whether Medvedev has accrued any power or not since he assumed the presidency and whether there are signs of a rift between him and his mentor, which would indicate a new assertiveness.
The two men present very different personas, which critics call an attempt to reassure two different audiences. Medvedev, cast as liberal, appeals to the West, criticizing the capricious judicial system, vowing to combat corruption, calling for modernization of the economy by developing technology and attracting foreign investment. He tweets, he blogs, he flies across the Internet, iPad at hand. But what has he changed? Nothing, his critics answer.
“Mr. Zero,” Shevtsova calls him. “There is no evidence Medvedev represents new, modern, value-oriented and transformative thinking. None.”
Medvedev, Shevtsova suggests, would hardly differ from Putin even if he wielded total power. He was in charge during the second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which legal experts dismiss as a gross miscarriage of justice, he was in charge when lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention, he has been in charge as corruption has grown ever greater, she says.
Putin speaks directly to the domestic audience, vowing to raise pensions, protect the workingman and make Russia strong—he often tosses off comments playing to Russians who see the West as the source of much potential evil in the world.
But a rift? In December, Putin suggested that Khodorkovsky was guilty even before the verdict had come in on his second trial. Medvedev responded with a brisk comment about not interfering in the judicial process. Putin called the United Nations intervention in Libya a “medieval crusade.” Medvedev called that remark “unacceptable.” Medvedev ordered government officials to resign from the boards of public companies — they were Putin’s men.
Grigory Golosov, a political science professor in St. Petersburg, finds only the Khodorkovsky exchange revelatory. “It showed who the real decision maker is,” he says, pointing out that Khodorkovsky was not only convicted but got the maximum sentence, “and of course Putin is.”
Still, the evidence — or lack thereof — of a rift gets extensive attention in the media here and in the West. Here, if you’re a political reporter, there’s not much to write about if you stay away from the subject. Shevtsova says the Kremlin encourages the talk because it makes it seem as if the election offers a real choice, instead of what Putin decides.
And the idea of a rift is attractive in the West, which wants optimistic news from Russia and an engaging partner in Medvedev.
In Russia, apparently no theory is rejected as too far-fetched. When Vice President Biden visited Moscow in March, newspaper reports said he was here to tell Medvedev to run for president, and that the United States would placate Putin by getting him a job at the Internaional Olympic Committee.
Kryshtanovskaya suggests that the Kremlin may be staging signs of a rift as preliminary steps in developing a two-party system, not any time soon, certainly not before the March 2012 presidential election, but eventually.
And the Kremlinology already has been followed by glasnost, or openness, she says.
“We have glasnost all over the Internet,” she says. “And there’s freedom of speech, not for the elite, of course, but for ordinary people. For the decision-making elite, information is closed.”