This column kicks off FP Moscow correspondent Julia Ioffe's regular coverage of the 2012 election, "Kremlinology 2012." Check back for inside scoops on the outsized personalities, backroom maneuvering, and baldfaced hypocrisies that go into a Russian election -- and the ongoing pas de deux of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.
MOSCOW — Provided nothing really crazy happens, there are now 332 days left until Russia's greatly anticipated presidential election, to be held on March 11, 2012. But the real election, such as it is, is happening now.
This is not, of course, an election in the most straightforward sense of the word. There are no real issues, no real campaigning, no real constituents -- at least not in the way Westerners understand these things. Of course, on March 11, a few voters will go to the polls and cast their ballots. But everything truly important will fall into place well before that day, and it will be decided well out of the public eye. Some candidates will emerge -- some dummies as well as the one the Kremlin intends to become the next president -- and votes will be harvested to sweep that one candidate to power with a large but credible margin. Call it the Ratification of 2012.
At the heart of this production is a conversation between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over which of the two men will run and therefore become president in 2012 -- a conversation that, for all we know, happened years ago and has already been resolved. Everyone else -- the Russian press, the foreign press, the experts, the scholars, the bloggers, the man on the street, even sometimes, it seems, the two candidates themselves -- is trying to figure out the outcome of that conversation: If, indeed, it's actually been had. It is a frustrating game that, at times, resembles betting on future weather patterns: Will it snow on March 11, 2012? It has, after all, snowed on or around that day in previous years. Except that one year, with the freak heat wave ...
As of now, with just under 11 months to go, the picture is still very murky. We don't know which of the two men, Putin or Medvedev, will run. Here's what we do know: Putin and Medvedev will not both run. "We shall come to an agreement," Putin said when pressed on the matter back in September 2009, "because we are of one blood and common political views." (It turned out a few months later that the two men actually have the same blood type. Presumably, the matching leather jackets were not only skin deep.)
The two have stuck to this line through nearly two years of pontificating about March 2012, and the reason is simple: If Putin ran against Medvedev, it could create a strangely real competition. This would waste a lot of resources and pit the elites against themselves, which would amp up the tensions in an already tense game of political musical chairs. And, despite Putin's comments on April 13 that impossible was nothing, that both could easily run, this is still widely understood to be an impossibility: Real competition, real chance was surgically removed from the system years ago by Putin himself. If reality were reintroduced now, things could get seriously out of control. "It would be an apocalypse," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin.
So, if it's one or the other, what are the arguments for each? The case that Putin intended to return to glory in 2012 was once bulletproof. Back before the Ratification of 2008, after the then-president had spent eight years building up his powers to an unprecedented degree, everyone wondered whether Putin would violate the Constitution and stay on. He stepped down and picked Medvedev to take over the post. Why install the weakest, most malleable of the contenders in that race if Medvedev weren't just a seat-warmer? "Many high-ranking officials don't recognize [Medvedev] as a leader," Azerbaijan's president was quoted as saying in a WikiLeaks document.
And why, shortly before Medvedev's accession, did Putin extend presidential term limits from four years to six? Was he not preparing -- and gilding -- his once-and-future throne? Talk began to circulate that Putin would come back in 2012 for another 12 years to retire in a distant 2024. This was fitting with his image as a strongman obsessed with being in control, in stark contrast with his booze-addled predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Putin may also have some financial incentives to hold on, a logic vividly illustrated in Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's firing last fall. Luzhkov was pushed out of power; his bank and his wife's company, Inteko, were thrown to the hungriest bidder; and Luzhkov promptly fled the country, seeking residence in Latvia or Austria. (He was later granted an entry visa to Britain, though he denied he was trying to flee.) The message was clear and chilling: If you fall from grace, you and your money are no longer safe in Russia. No one knows how much money Putin has accrued in his decade in power. He just declared that he earned $180,000 last year, but no one really believes that. There is talk of tens of billions of dollars, of friendly businessmen holding his money for him, of billion-dollar palaces on the Black Sea -- all of which Putin denies. Yet if any of it is true, then how can he simply step down and risk losing it all?
About a year ago, though, the case for Putin as president-for-life began to look a bit weaker -- as did Putin himself. WikiLeaks underscored a lot of the rumors Moscow reporters had been hearing on the ground, that Putin had become increasingly disengaged from work. "Well connected [redacted] told us that Putin is said to be 'distracted' and 'disinterested,'" one document said. He was not on a regular schedule, often working from home and leaving the daily business to his deputies. "I think he has conflicting feelings about" whether or not he wants to come back as president, Alexander Voloshin told me this winter. (Voloshin was once Putin's first chief of staff and still has an office directly below Putin's in the Moscow White House.) "There is a certain fatigue there. He knows everything already, and it's all déjà vu now to some extent. Is he chomping at the bit to come back? No. At the same time, [the presidency] is of course a position from which it's much easier to guard one's interests than from the premier's position."