Kremlinology 2012

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer

Medvedev's worst week ever just keeps on going.

MOSCOW — Late on Thursday night, Sept. 29, after a week of snickers and open mockery, a decision was made: The president -- that is, Dmitry Medvedev -- would go on television and explain himself. Why had he, an acting president, with another seven months left in his term, gone up to the podium at the United Russia convention five days earlier and said, "It would be the right thing to do for the convention to uphold the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for the presidency." Medvedev, never a figure of strength and masculinity in a country obsessed by such things, seemed like he had been dragged through the mud and humiliated -- especially when Putin took his turn at the podium and announced that the decision had been made years ago. That one phrase seemed to negate Medvedev's three-and-a-half years in office. Medvedev looked like a broken man: His face was bloated, his eyes ringed with fatigue or misery -- despite the near-constant smiles. At times during his speech, it seemed like he might cry.

Seeing a man down -- a man long suspected of being a dauphin, a seat-warmer for Putin -- public opinion pounced. "Well, at least it's Putin, and not Putin," snarked KermlinRussia, the popular parody of Medvedev's Twitter account, highlighting the now uncontestable fact that Putin and Medvedev were and had always been the same person. (A few days later, Kermlin followed up with this zinger: "This is an unconscionable act toward journalists, who had spent four years training themselves not to call Putin president.") Citizen Poet, the satirical project of poet Dmitry Bykov and actor Mikhail Efremov, cast Medvedev as a hapless, childish Hamlet and Putin as the ghost of his father. The apparition appears and answers Hamlet/Medvedev's indecision -- "To be, or not to be?" -- with a simple, "You won't be."

When Medvedev fired Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister known to be extremely close to -- and thus protected by -- Putin, his rant about presidential authority convinced no one, not even Kudrin, who responded to the president's request for his resignation that he would consult the prime minister. That is, Vladimir Putin. The blogosphere did not let that one pass, either. A new joke began to make the rounds: "I'll consult the prime minster," says Kudrin. "No, I'll consult the prime minister," says Medvedev. (In my version, they race each other down the hallway to his office.)

It was not a good week. And so the presidential spinmeisters made the decision to put their man on television, to let him explain himself -- an unheard-of proposition in Russian politics.

The broadcast -- a roundtable interview with the heads of the three biggest state channels -- aired on Friday night. Prime-time shows were rejiggered and swapped out around it. Russian viewers saw their hobbled president, resplendent and sad in a cobalt suit, surrounded by the three graying, skeptical, almost nauseous-looking TV execs in Medvedev's lush library, just outside Moscow.

The first question came from Konstantin Ernst, director of Channel One, Russia's most important state channel. "What was the primary motive behind your decision?" asked Ernst, of the Sept. 24 announcement. "Usually, presidents seek reelection. You are a politician, and politicians are ambitious people. What was your ambition in making this decision?"

Medvedev's response was puzzling: "My biggest ambition is to be useful to my country and my people." Was the implication that he was not useful to his country as president? Had he not been useful this whole time? He didn't say.

Then Medvedev said something even worse: Putin and he are of similar outlook, and as they belong to the same party, why not just figure it out between the two of them? It's not so unusual, Medvedev said, leaning heavily, awkwardly, on the Russian rhetorical tactic known as America-does-it-too-ism: "Can you imagine Barack Obama competing with Hillary Clinton?" Medvedev said. "That would be impossible. They both belong to the Democratic Party, and their decision was based on who could get better results. And this was also how we made our decision."

It's a novel analogy, given that it proves exactly the opposite of what Medvedev wanted to prove. As one prominent Russian journalist put it, "Who told you such a stupid thing that you decided to go and repeat it to the whole world?"

If that weren't unconvincing enough, Medvedev gave another reason: "Prime Minister Putin undoubtedly remains the most popular politician in our country at this point, and his rating is even higher. Somehow, people tend to forget about that."

That one is tricky. Yes, Putin is technically more popular than Medvedev. There has always been a relatively stable gap in their poll numbers. Pundits both here and in the United States spent the weekend trying to crunch the numbers, trying to explain a dip here, a bump there. But somehow people forgot something else: Ratings, like everything else in the Russian political system, are not truly ratings, but simulacra.

"I have to tell you something," Oleg Savelev said to me once. Savelev is a sociologist at the Levada Center, one of several polling centers that monitor such data. "Our numbers don't track public opinion; they track the effectiveness of propaganda." That is, he went on to explain, if television weren't centrally formulated and subject to heavy self-censorship, if newspapers had wider circulation, if the Internet had a deeper penetration, the numbers would probably look very different -- which is precisely why all those soft controls exist in the first place.

Since the very beginning of the tandem experiment, public opinion has been formed in only one direction: Medvedev is weak and nerdy; Putin is strong, manly, decisive. Medvedev plays with gadgets; Putin rides Harley-Davidsons, shoots tigers. Medvedev deals with forest fires on the phone; Putin is on the ground talking to the people and walking through the smoldering embers. Three girls come out in miniskirts for Medvedev; scores of them strip for Putin. It's no contest, because Russians aren't that different from Americans in this respect: The show matters, and people love a winner. And the poll numbers show exactly this. Putin is always more trusted. He is so trusted that, ironically, Russians are even more likely to see Putin, the architect of the power vertical, not Medvedev, as the ostensible liberal, as the guarantor of democratic freedoms.

If invoking the technicality of poll numbers was circular, the rest of Medvedev's interview was a total wash. Asked why someone who had repeatedly spoken of his desire to run for a second term and then suddenly, inexplicably, changed his mind, Medvedev said: "Everything may change in this life. It's true we have long had an understanding on how to configure the power, should our people show us trust in 2011 and 2012. It's true, and we said so at the party convention. But at the same time, life could have made unexpected and paradoxical changes to our plans. What if the preferences of the voters change, for some reason? I must take this into account."

In other words, it would have only been possible for him to run if voter preference -- expressed not at the polls but in hall-of-mirrors polls -- had swung suddenly in his favor. Compare this with what he told the Financial Times in June: "I think that any leader who occupies such a post as president simply must want to run."

Why, Medvedev was asked, should voters even bother going to the polls if everything has already been decided for them? "I consider [such statements to be] absolutely irresponsible, misleading, and even provocative," he said in a stiffly practiced manner. "What are you talking about? The election campaign has just started. Let's ask ourselves a simple question: What if our people reject us -- both Medvedev and Putin? What will happen to these decisions by the convention? These decisions are merely the party's recommendation to vote for those people, that's all."

Apparently, he's in agreement with the commentary of the chair of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, who said last week that the results of the presidential election are unpredictable. I have no comment for either of them.

Does he feel pressure from the Internet, of which he is such an avid fan, asked the head of NTV? "Of course, Internet polls and their results are not legally binding for governments. Nor do they accurately reflect public opinion."

Are people becoming indifferent? Has television -- and this really was a fine question, coming from the heads of state TV stations -- degenerated into bread and circuses? Politics on TV, Medvedev said, is "a clear sign of poor living standards. The better our life is, the less attention people will pay to that, because they are more or less happy with their life." No political interview could really be complete without the invocation of the thoroughly post-Soviet premise that politics are bad and dirty, and that the effective decisions are being made without the mess of politics. You, good citizen, may have no impact on the political process, the thesis goes, but you can buy as many iPhones as you want -- thanks to the fact that we're handling all this for you.

When the interview was over, half an hour later, Medvedev looked like a man who had finally gotten a lot off his chest. Perhaps it had been therapeutic. But was it therapeutic for Russians? I doubt it. No one except the people who talk about the minutiae of Kremlinology even talked about it. Medvedev seemed to be slowly receding from the news and, perhaps worse, from jokes. Talk around town is not about what sort of prime minister he'll be, but how short a term he'll serve before he is phased out. Some wonder whether he'll even be named prime minister at all.

In the meantime, after the political chaos of the last two weeks, things are calm in Moscow again. It's quiet and boring again; stability is once again upon us. But already, the outlines of the next phase are starting to show. On Oct. 4, Putin, writing in a paper, Izvestia, owned by an old friend, introduced an ambitious new project: the Eurasian Union, a wide zone of economic and political cooperation in the post-Soviet space.

Medvedev still had some work to do, too, though: He fired a couple of prison officials and toured some barracks in Nenets autonomous okrug. Back in Moscow, the Duma was discussing Medvedev's proposed legislation to deal with pedophiles. His novel suggestion? Voluntary castration.

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

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