Political Limbo Over 2012 Election Long Wait Rattles Nerves in Moscow
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are confusing friends and foes alike with their determined silence on which of them intends to stand as presidential candidate in the 2012 Russian election. Lawmakers, civil servants and business leaders are tearing their hair out over the political limbo.
For years, Gleb Pavlovsky was a common sight in the power corridors of the Kremlin. Some Moscow media referred to him as the "grey cardinal." He pulled strings behind the scenes and was regarded as one of the most influential "political technologists" -- that's what advisors and spin doctors are called in Russia, people who set up political parties and movements on behalf of their masters. They're the mechanics of power and propaganda in the new Russia. Pavlovsky's rise was closely linked to the career of Vladimir Putin. In 1999, the political scientist was one of the intellectual forces behind the foundation of the Unity party from which the Putin party United Russia later emerged.
But that's over for the time being. Russia's leadership has shown him the door. Pavlovsky's Kremlin pass has been cancelled. He thinks he knows the reason for this: He speculated too publicly about whether Prime Minister Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev would stand in the presidential election in 2012. "I broke the tandem's code of silence: Never say anything about a candidate until they've taken a decision, which is being postponed day by day and month by month," he says.
When Russia commemorated its victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, Medvedev and Putin sat together on the rostrum to watch 20,000 soldiers march past the Kremlin walls. There was no hint of any rivalry, let alone a rift, between the two men. Medvedev even occasionally leaned over to whisper something into Prime Minister's ear. Putin smiled.
A Pact of Silence
Russia's duumvirate has evidently agreed to a pact of silence on the candidacy. Anyone who breaks it faces demotion, like Pavlovsky. The two leaders want to decide on the candidacy themselves -- and to postpone a decision until the end of the year. Kremlin watchers in Moscow can't tell whether the issue has upset the relationship between the two men. But parts of the administration and the political elite are being driven close to a "permanent nervous breakdown," says Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow Center for Post-Industrial Studies.
Bureaucrats and political functionaries are confused about whom they should be loyal to: the president, who has been trying to establish a distinctive profile by emphasizing differences with Putin? Or the prime minister, who appeared to be attacking Medvedev when he warned in parliament against "indiscriminate experiments based on an unjustified liberalism."
The uncertainty of the political elite is having bizarre effects. The Duma, the Russian parliament, passed a resolution on the Libyan conflict that somehow managed to encompass the divergent opinions of the prime minister and the president. While Putin had labelled NATO's air attacks as a "crusade" against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Medvedev contradicted his prime minister and defended the United Nations resolution setting up a no-fly zone. The head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee remarked that the parliamentary resolution "will enter the textbooks of diplomacy."
Lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin had the audacity to complain publicly that Medvedev had not aided Libya by vetoing the UN resolution. Shortly after that he was punished, like Pavlovsky: He lost his position as deputy head of a foreign policy parliamentary committee, ostensibly due to a rotation of party posts. Shortly after that an interview Zatulin had given disappeared from a website aligned with the Kremlin. In it, Zatulin had warned that if Putin didn't stand for the presidency, "it would be a disaster for the country," and "treachery."
A Culture of Last-Minute Decisions
In the last 12 years, last-minute decisions have become a political tradition in Russia. On New Year's Eve 1999, then-President Boris Yeltsin suddenly promoted the pale and relatively unknown Putin to become president. At the end of 2007, Putin surprisingly anointed the liberal Medvedev as his successor rather than Sergey Ivanov, who had been the hawks' favorite.
Today, Russia's leadership is cultivating this unpredictability in order to secure the loyalty of a variety of groups for as long as possible. The liberals can still hope that Medvedev will emancipate himself from his political patron Putin. And patriots and Siloviki, as the current and former members of the security services are known, can hope that Putin will put the liberals in their place. But it's impossible to determine whether all this has caused a rift between the prime minister and president.
Meanwhile the Russian economy is suffering from the political limbo. "For us, predictability and political certainty are important," complains Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. For months, Russia has been suffering a massive outflow of capital. In the first quarter of 2011, a total of $21.3 billion left the country, up by a third from the same period in 2010. That was partly due to uncertainty over Russia's future government, and its policies.
Decision Likely After December Duma Elections
At stake is who will run the world's geographically largest country, and the second-biggest nuclear power, from 2012. Will Putin return to the Kremlin, the former KGB officer who has been in government for over a decade now? Under his presidency, Russia regained its confidence and sense of strength, but he also presided over a rise in corruption and nepotism and he failed to lessen Russia's dependence on raw materials exports.
Or will Medvedev go for a second term as president, a man of the liberal wing, who in a SPIEGEL interview described the oil and gas trade as Russia's "drug"? He has been vehemently calling for a modernization of Russia, but has so far made little progress in that regard.
A decision on who will stand for the presidency is likely after the parliamentary elections in December. If Putin's party, United Russia, does well and Putin secures a comfortable majority in the Duma, he could remain on as a powerful prime minister, and Medvedev could stay on as president. Putin has already hinted that he isn't especially interested in foreign policy anymore, traditionally one of the most important functions of the Russian president.
The party came under pressure in the last regional elections. According to an opinion poll by the respected Lewada Center, 31 percent of the population sees United Russia as a "party of thieves and crooks."
If the party fails to get an absolute majority in the election, Putin might want to return to the Kremlin to consolidate his power base.
The upcoming elections are important for Putin, Pavlovsky believes, because they could be the last elections for him and the aides who came to power with him in 2000. "In the coming six years the team will have to prepare its withdrawal," says Pavlovsky.
Putin recently declared: "The country needs a decade of stable and calm development." He has been scoring points with the stability motto for the past 10 years, not least because many Russians suffered steep declines in their standard of living during the 1990s. After the turmoil of that decade, they yearned not for reforms or a greater political say, but for quiet and modest prosperity.
Regardless of who will be Russia's next president, there are signs that, in the future, people will expect more from their leaders than mere promises of stability. In early May, the entertainment magazine Afisha published the results of a poll of Moscow pupils about to finish high school. The students are 16 and 17 years old and grew up in Putin's Russia. The survey may not be representative, but it should still give Russian leaders pause for thought. A total of 52 percent of pupils believe Russia's situation will worsen in the future. More alarming yet for Putin and Medvedev: 54 percent would prefer to emigrate.