I've just returned to Moscow after a two-week vacation to find that, true to the Gogolian model of Russian history, lots has happened, but nothing's changed.
In my absence, the electoral campaign has swung into high gear: Heads have rolled, others were made into official heads, still others lost their precious marbles. And yet, at the end of the two-week bonanza of firings and the first press conference of President Dmitry Medvedev's three years in office, no one knows any more than they did before.
Let's recap. In mid April, we heard of the sacking of Alexey Chadaev, the young chief ideologist of United Russia, Vladimir Putin's party. Two weeks later, Gleb Pavlovsky, a "politilogist" who is often quoted here and who runs Fund for Effective Politics, a think tank that was widely seen as a Kremlin stand-in, was fired from his position as Medvedev's volunteer political advisor. Tit-for-tat? Maybe. Significance? Unclear.
Around the same time, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian Senate (the Federation Council) and head of the dummy A Just Russia party, found himself in hot water, ostensibly for criticizing his native St. Petersburg. (He said it was the most corrupt city in Russia.) In May, he was removed from his government post, and talk of dissolving his party began to circulate. It was also around this time that Putin announced the formation of the new All-Russia People's Front, a strange amalgam of hail-Mary populism and Monty Python. Making way for a new Kremlin-made opposition party? Probably. End result? Comedy.
And then came the curve ball: On May 16, Mikhail Prokhorov, playboy billionaire and co-owner, with Jay-Z, of the New Jersey Nets, was trotted out as the man who would head another Kremlin dummy, the Just Cause Party. The names of the two parties sound similar because of an English translation glitch, and yet it's a telling one: Both were created by the Kremlin to funnel oppositionally-minded voters away from the actual opposition. The only difference is in target demographics. A Just Russia is aimed at people sympathetic to the parties that used to be the real threat to United Russia: the Communists and the nationalist-populist Liberal Democratic Party. More recently, however, United Russia has swallowed up some of their positions, and those two parties have become loyal vassals of the Kremlin, making A Just Russia somewhat superfluous.
These days, the people alienated by the Kremlin are the ones who have done well in the market economy, the young, economically liberal, well-off middle class and elite. Given Prokhorov's allure with this crowd -- he is an internationally successful businessman who has just clocked in as the third-richest man in Russia -- it seemed clear that his newly resurfaced Just Cause (a right-leaning, market-oriented party) was to be the replacement for Mironov's A Just Russia.
Fine. But what of Medvedev's first real presidential press conference, just two days after Prokhorov's big news? The presser, announced well in advance with great fanfare, was eagerly anticipated by journalists: What was Medvedev was planning to say? Would he finally put an end to the agonizing guessing game and declare his candidacy? Was he going to -- gasp -- fire Putin?
As it turned out, none of the above. When the big day came, Medvedev talked for just over two hours about, well, nothing. He talked about television, about parking, about reindeers. When asked the question that's been tormenting Moscow elites for months -- who, for God's sake, would "run"? -- Medvedev dodged. Awkwardly. "Finally, you asked this question," he joked, and then proceeded to discuss the nature of politics, very broadly speaking. "If I decide to make such a statement, I'll do it," he added, telling the journalists, confusingly, that a press conference was not the appropriate venue for such an announcement.
"This was a bit of an unfortunate performance," Pavlovsky told me afterward. "Everyone wanted to know one thing, and he didn't discuss it. You can't gather the press and not talk about what they want to talk about. It angers them." (A week out, the consensus seems to be that Medvedev wanted to show that he was not bent on confrontation with Putin. But who knows, really?)