Kremlinology 2012

Putin's Puppets

How do you win a Russian election? First, invent a coalition.

At around 7 p.m. on Friday night, I called Robert Shlegel, the young techie who sits in Russia's parliament as a representative of the ruling United Russia party. The week was sandwiched between two three-day weekends (May Day and Victory Day), and many Muscovites never bothered to come back from the first one. The city was empty, and emptying more every minute. Which is why my call found Shlegel in a loud Moscow cafe.

"Hi," I said, when he answered casually, "so what do you think about this people's front idea?"

An hour earlier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at a United Russia conference in Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), announced his plan for the December 2011 parliamentary elections: a people's front. The front would include, of course, United Russia, Putin said, as well as "some other political parties, labor groups, women's groups, youth groups, veterans' [groups], including veterans of World War II and the [Soviet Union's] war in Afghanistan."

"About what?" Schlegel said over the background noise.

"A people's front. Putin is forming a people's front."

Silence.

"Hello?"

"What is that?"

I read Shlegel the description. He laughed. Shlegel was also surprised, as was I, that it had been announced at 6 p.m. on a holiday weekend.

"They did that on purpose," he said, then quickly corrected himself: "I mean, I think it's very necessary. They need to somehow unify the people who are politically active." Then he asked to have a couple minutes to read the news, and asked me to please write something nice.

Most people will not hear about this till deep into next week -- which is exactly the point, because the plan is ridiculous. Let's start with the fact that none of the groups that Putin rattled off in his speech actually exist; in fact, he and his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov made sure to neuter them all. If they've managed to survive independently, then we certainly won't see them as part of the people's front. More likely, new ones will magically appear this summer and fall, falling in line with the so-called people's front, which sounds far too much like The Life of Brian.

All kidding aside -- and it's hard with this one -- the move is a clear response to United Russia's dipping poll numbers and rather dismal results in the March regional elections. (In Kirov, they outright lost to the Communists, which also happened the year before in Irkutsk -- and this with United Russia's total media dominance.)

The point, though, seems not to be about poll numbers. United Russia would still win, and the desirable margin can be "drawn in," as the Russians say. The point is legitimacy, assuring a population increasingly fed up with United Russia that Putin is listening to them, that he wants to include them -- provided they're "likeminded."

"This happens every time there's an election," says political analyst Masha Lipman, who was just as bemused as Shlegel by the news, pointing out that national fronts are created in times of crisis and Russia has ostensibly had a party system and constitution for 20 years. "Every time, they invent a new trick for holding it together. It just underscores the ad hoc nature of Russian politics," she said.

These tricks, let's recall, are always rather silly. In 2007, United Russia started to sag at the corners, so the monstrously popular Putin put his name on the ballot as United Russia's front-runner -- without actually running or even joining the party. The bait-and-switch, here-take-some-of-my-mojo maneuver worked: United Russia roared into the Duma with over 64 percent of the vote, and the last vestiges of the democratic opposition were definitively locked out of Parliament. In 2008, Putin gave the party another boost, agreeing to head the party, but not joining it, an act that implies a sort of distaste for the thing. In fact, some of his utterances about the party have been less than flattering. The party, he said then, needed to "become more open for discussion and must be de-bureaucratized completely." He also added that the party should be purged of "casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains."

That hasn't worked out too well: It took blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny no time or effort to create a powerful, catchy meme -- "United Russia, Party of Crooks and Thieves."

When he agreed to head the party, Putin said he was forming an alliance of "likeminded" individuals linked by their "love of Russia," rhetoric that sounds much like today's. He was concerned, he said, about "the spiritual unity of the people," a trope that in Russian politics means: We'll take care of it. This meant the same thing in Soviet times, when everyone was also dragged out to vote for a pre-determined candidate. How did they get numbers in the high '90s when there were only a few million Communist Party members? They formed a people's front of Party members and non-Party members alike. Back then, it was called the Bloc of Communists and Those Without a Party. According to a 1967 book called 50 Years of October: the Triumph of Marxism-Leninsm, the concept "expresses the inviolability of the moral and political unity of Soviet society." In practice it meant, you all have to vote anyway.

Back then, however, there was an ideological underpinning, however frayed, to explain why we trust the Communist Party: "The experience of many years of struggle, the experience of the three Russian revolutions and communist construction workers convinced that the Communists have no other interests except the interests of the people." The current ruling party has branched out, developing interests other than the interests of the people. These include, but are not limited to, real estate, business, and cars. And the attempt to gather votes with this Popular People's Front is like going fishing with a grenade.

MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlinology 2012

The Countdown Begins …

But no one knows where it's going to end. A skeptic's look at the 2012 Russian election.

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."

He added, "And, in principle, the current situation suits him fine because it allows him to spend his time doing practical things instead of spending hours accepting innumerable awards and spending time on protocol, of which there's plenty. Now, he is his own master, which he also likes."

And, though the good-cop, bad-cop setup has been working well for the tandem, Medvedev has been asserting himself. In an interview with a Chinese journalist this week, he insisted that he is in fact interested in continuing on as president after 2012. Behind the scenes, he has said the same thing to anyone who will listen. An American official told me that Medvedev has repeatedly expressed his desire to stay on. "He knows that there is only one voter, though," the official said.

Medvedev's goal in the next year is to convince that one voter -- Putin. In other words, expect to see lots of feats of strength in the coming year, like more bold firings and more unexpected policy about-faces, like the Khimki forest highway freeze. If Medvedev does manage to convince Putin, the conventional wisdom has Putin staying on as prime minister -- Voloshin told me Putin is worried about the stability of the system he invented -- or retiring in favor of another strongman, like vice premier, Rosneft chairman, and former spook Igor Sechin.

But there's also a third scenario at play: the dark horse! Rumors around Moscow have a third candidate coming in to replace the tired old model, whose rankings have hit an all-time low. The three dark-horse candidates are all young liberals who have publicly pushed Medvedev's modernization agenda at home and abroad. First, there is Arkady Dvorkovich, a young Duke University grad who serves as Medvedev's economic advisor. He also shares Medvedev's passion for technology; the man's job seems to consist entirely of tweeting. Then there is Igor Shuvalov: a charismatic 40-something deputy prime minister in Putin's camp. Shuvalov is regularly trotted out abroad or during conferences with Western investors to reassure them that Russia knows what its problems are and that it wants badly to change the status quo. Third is Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a stalwart if somewhat dry pragmatist who saved Russia from falling into the abyss during the 2008 financial crisis.

But, of course, the third candidate could be anyone else. In 2008, there were 12 contenders in all. And, as Pavlovsky points out, "a third candidate [winning] is only possible in one scenario: if there is a stalemate between Putin and Medvedev, and neither of them backs down." Exciting as this would be for Kremlin-watchers, it's not a likely outcome.

As for Putin's reported fatigue, Pavlovsky is dubious. "It's not a question of psychology but of politics," he told me. "He might be tired, but he can't just abandon the huge numbers of people who depend on him. He's our Fannie Mae." He added, "Besides, Putin is not an old man. He's turning 59 this year. Leonid Brezhnev became general secretary of the Communist Party when he was 59."

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images