For months, Russia-watchers have been breathlessly obsessing about who will be the next president: iPad-toting, Twitter-friendly Dmitry Medvedev or judo-throwing, animal-hunting Vladimir Putin. The decider — that’s Putin — refuses to say, a display of raw power that has thrown the opposition into more than the usual disarray.
The latest shift in the political wisdom — that Putin will choose to take the presidency back from Medvedev in March — has made the fault lines even deeper, provoking some to make public appeals for Medvedev and others calling them deluded if they think they can change anything.
“Our approach is that Medvedev is the least of the evils,” said Igor Kharichev, secretary of the Moscow Writers Union, who signed an open letter urging Russians to demand a second term for the president. “Some do not like this approach because they believe that we should not support any one of them.”
Vladimir Ryzhkov, who served in the State Duma for 14 years until Putin squeezed out the opposition, said it’s time to give up on Medvedev, no matter what Putin may have decided.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said in an interview. “There’s no difference between Medvedev and Putin. They are two sides of the same coin.”
It’s almost a closed-door argument, carried out in opinion pieces in the English-language press and reports in small independent newspapers — the opposition has no hope of time on television, where most Russians get their news. But it has resonance in the United States, where Medvedev has developed a Western-leaning image and Americans are divided among their own camps.
U.S. diplomats and businessmen engaged with Russia assume that even though Medvedev has become the voice of progressives he could not act without Putin’s endorsement, said James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and director of the Carnegie Endowment Russia and Eurasia Program. Putin critics, however, would see his return to the presidency as proof that Russia was moving backward and that President Obama’s reset in relations was a failure. Those close to Russian liberals would feel their despair.
“I subscribe to the pragmatic group,” Collins said. “I think over the last three years what has been accomplished has been done with the approval of Mr. Putin. I don’t really think we’ll see much difference, but it will make relations more complicated and complex.”
Ryzhkov is a leader of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom, known as Parnas, which has been prevented from competing in the December parliamentary elections by a legal process reminiscent of the American South in the civil rights years.
Ryzhkov said that perceiving Medvedev as a Western-oriented liberal who would make a better president than the authoritarian Putin was an exercise in self-deception. Although Medvedev has talked at length about making the judiciary independent, fighting corruption, opening up the political process and diversifying the economy — reforms he calls modernization — he has had scant results.
“In fact, the situation in Russia has actually grown worse,” Ryzhkov wrote in the Moscow Times recently, “because the ballooning state bureaucracy and the uncontrolled personal enrichment of its privileged members have become more difficult to distinguish owing to the rustle and sheen of the silky smooth modernization ruse created by Medvedev.”
If Medvedev were to get a second term, Ryzhkov said, Russia would look little different than it does now. “It would be the same corrupt, anti-human rights regime, with liberal rhetoric but very authoritarian government,” he said.
Calling elections here a farce, Ryzhkov advises not a boycott but a vote against all candidates. “It’s a legal way of protest,” he said. “It’s a way to take some kind of action.”
Kharichev, general director of the magazine Knowledge Is Power, was among 17 writers and public figures who signed the pro-Medvedev letter.
“We still know little of D.A. Medvedev,” it said. “But we have been able to get a good understanding of who Mr. Putin is. We do not like what he did to Russia in the course of two presidential terms. And we see no justification for his ambitions for another two.”
The letter writers argued passionately for Russians to at least make themselves heard, to let Medvedev — and Putin — know that the president has support.
“It is necessary to help him to move in the planned direction,” they wrote. “Otherwise it will be all too Russian: What we have we do not cherish, and what we have lost we lament.”
Kharichev said he understood that if Medvedev remained president, Putin — now prime minister — would remain the decision-maker, but at least he was doing something.
“Some just don’t get involved,” he said. “Some go to rallies. But there are not many of them. Not many are willing to go to a rally where they can be beaten up by the police. Others talk about immigration — if they have the means, they will leave.”
For the rest, the choice is Medvedev.
“Under him we would have more chances,” he said. “I would rather be in the opposition under Medvedev than under Putin.”
The letter was published in the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which at first refused it, Kharichev said, because the editors thought that both Putin and Medvedev should be removed. But acknowledging that was unattainable, they agreed to print it.
“The circulation is only 200,000,” he said, “but those who think about the future of Russia read it, not those who drink every evening or watch television soap operas.
“We did what we could.”
Most people pay little attention to any of this, alienated from all things political, giving Putin license to decide who will occupy what office. Others care but feel isolated and powerless, convinced that the individual can do nothing to change the politics here.
Sitting on the edge of her narrow bed in a small apartment where books tower from floor to ceiling along every wall, Marietta Chudakova refuses to surrender to that frustration.
A 74-year-old professor of Russian literature, an admired expert on the works of Mikhail Bulgakov and a political activist, she signed the Novaya Gazeta letter.
“Look at Medvedev; he’s not perfect, so get someone else,” she said. “That’s the way people think. The Bolsheviks promised heaven on Earth, and that’s what people expect. Utopia is like a drug, a very strong drug. Even the gulag didn’t change that idea.”
Putin wants to restore the old Soviet ways, Chudakova said, but she refuses to live in that kind of a country. She teaches, she lectures, she publishes books, she writes articles, delving into politics and literature, ideas, history, the stuff of life.
“I don’t think I can do anything about the adults,” she said, “but I won’t let them spoil the teenagers.”