Who will be Russia's Next President? Episode #1047




There is one story making the rounds of Russia watchers today – an article in Vedomosti saying President Dmitry Medvedev met with top businessmen yesterday and slapped them with an ultimatum: it’s time to choose between me and Putin.

According to Vedomosti, Medvedev met with nearly every major Russian business player: oligarchs Mikhail Friedman, Alisher Usmanov and Oleg Deripaska, bankers Andrei Kostin and German Gref, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economy Minister Elvira Nabuillina (for a full Russian-language graphic of the table setting, click here).

There’s a full transcript of the meeting here but, according to Vedomosti, a crucial part is left out. At the end of the meeting, Medvedev spoke to the gathering and laid out two paths for the country – the current one, put forward by Putin, and his own more modernizing vision.

“At the end of the meeting, the president suddenly started talking about the upcoming presidential election,” Vedomosti writes. “He began by saying the situation in the country is very complicated and how it develops depends on two people – himself and Vladimir Putin, and they have different scenarios for this development,” they say, quoting one of the meeting’s attendees. Medvedev’s scenario was laid out in his speech to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum last month, which many took as the president’s strongest speech yet. “[A]nd now businessmen must choose, which path the country will continue on,” the paper writes. “You have to decide if you support my program or keep things as they are,” Medvedev said, according to the participant.

“The president delicately and clearly made us understand that the time has come for business to choose who they want to see as the next president,” the participant said. “It was so unexpected that I just froze.”

So has Medvedev decided he wants to keep his spot? He did tell the FT last month that he would like to run for president again, but isn’t sure he will. The decision, it is widely understood, rests with Putin, though both men have said they will decide together. Medvedev and Putin have had a few public disagreements (Russian readers see this fun Vedomosti compilation), but, by and large, the differences between the two men have remained largely rhetorical. There are forces inside Russia that would like to see Medvedev stay on, including his own circle in government and some members of Russian business, who see him as a better face for attracting foreign investment and promoting Russian business abroad. But Medvedev remains a figure largely loyal to Putin, and, his St Petersburg speech aside, seemingly devoid of personal ambition.

So why, all of a sudden, would Medvedev lash out on his own? It’s not clear that he actually has.

“Other participants in the meeting took the conversation in another way,” Vedomosti writes. “If you want, you can, of course, conclude from the conversation that business was asked to decide who it’s with, but I didn’t make that conclusion,” another participant told the paper, identified only as the owner of a large company. “Everyone is waiting in expectation of the resolution of some drama, and so they speculate.” Another participant backed up that view.

Then why wasn’t the conversation included in the minutes of the meeting? Maybe because any conversation about elections, unless perfectly managed, is sensitive. Then why was it leaked? Those in the room don’t exactly have a reputation for total openness with the press. Maybe those backing Medvedev had an interest in doing so?

The article’s final paragraph appears the most telling: “One of the participants explained the big difference in impressions about the general conversation by saying the gathering was “mixed”: some of those present were closer to Putin, some to Medvedev, and that’s what the perception depends on.”