Placing bets on Russia's presidential contest

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"The chances I'm coming back are around this big."

Credit:

DMITRY ASTAKHOV

With official silence from Russia’s leadership on who will be Russia’s next president, the Western guessing game has begun. Pundits have begun to come forward with their guesses.

Writing in the Sunday Times (you can read a reprint in The Australian here), veteran Moscow-based journalist Mark Franchetti cites “highly placed sources” (none of them named) as saying Vladimir Putin has decided to return to the presidency.

In Dmitry Medvedev’s corner, we’ve got Stefan Wagstyl at the Financial Times and Steve Levine at Foreign Policy, both longtime Russia watchers.

Writing in the FT’s beyondbrics blog, Wagstyl argues: “For what it’s worth, beyondbrics puts its rouble on Medvedev on the grounds that the current division of labour has served the two men and the country reasonably well.” Levine takes that point and adds: “[T]he signals are there for a continued Medvedev presidency.”

There are two problems with those statements. First, reading “signals” is about all we can go on, but is it really enough? And what if those signals are specially placed to create a picture “they” want us to see?

Secondly, the division of labor between Putin and Medvedev has indeed worked quite well so far, but what’s to ensure that will continue? Part of Putin’s continued power inside Russia rests on the fact that he can come back in 2012. Take that away and what’s to keep the relatively liberal forces around Medvedev from taking the reins and running with their agenda? Russia is not a democracy, so popular support means little (in the short run). But elites have to throw their lot in with one side or the other. The “division of labor” that has worked so well until now would not necessarily continue in the same form were Medvedev to stay on in 2012.

One of Medvedev's first big moves upon coming to the presidency in 2008 was signing into law a change to the constitution extending the presidential term from four years to six (this move was allowed because the ruling United Russia party put forth the amendments thanks to their two-thirds constitutional majority in the Duma, a main goal of the 2007 parliamentary elections). Back then, it looked pretty clear that Putin wanted to come back in 2012. To stick to that view now would mean discounting the possibility that Putin and the elite that surround him have any sort of strategic flexibility. But now we're getting into signal-reading territory. And what's the point of that.