Vladimir Putin! Pas De Trois?

If Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ever complains (which, given his public image, doesn’t seem to happen often), this is hardly about the lack of media attention. On the contrary, as I argued before, the Western media’s obsession with Putin’s persona borders on insanity, and every summer we’re invited to decipher a secret meaning of Putin’s naked torso vacation pictures or his caressing a tiger cub.

This summer is different though. Forest fires ravaging the European part of Russia are keeping Putin at work and fully dressed ("in a light blue shirt and dark blue jeans", as a recent article in the LA Times informs us with the gravity of a grounded fashion magazine). But the lack of Putin’s skin didn’t fool the folks at the venerable newspaper. Having put together a number of recent Putin acts — him speaking with President Dmitry Medvedev on a cellphone; him singing patriotic songs with the members of the notorious Russian Spy Ring; and him riding a Harley-Davidson during an international motorcycle show in Sevastopol ("wearing black boots, black pants and shirt, a black belt with a silver buckle and dark sunglasses") — they made an extraordinary in its perception and clarity conclusion: Putin [is] positioning himself to reclaim Russia presidency.

Or better yet, read for yourself this excerpt of Shakespearean proportion:

"From the smoke of the wildfires engulfing the Moscow region…Vladimir Putin is reemerging as Russia’s most powerful man and, experts say, a candidate to reclaim the presidency a little more than a year and a half from now."

(The "experts" the above pearl of journalism is talking about are Lilia Shevtsova and Igor Klyamkin, a.k.a. "Russia’s Limousine Liberals." Ms. Shevtsova, in particular, can’t seem to take her eyes away from Putin’s clothes: "Putin loves to employ his favorite Benito Mussolini-the-father-of-the-nation image, wearing all black…" It’s not the first time that a Russian "liberal" compared Putin to Mussolini; so I don’t claim that Ms. Shevtsova’s wild historical parallel was an unfortunate consequence of the extreme heat caused by "the wildfires engulfing the Moscow region.")

To be honest, I’m not ready to buy the argument that Putin’s Sevastopol appearance was intended to impress his future voters. Who in Russia will remember, in "a little more than a year and a half from now", that Putin was riding Harley-Davidson and not, say, a Honda, and that his buckle was made of silver and not, say, gold. But I’m extremely surprised that smart people as they are, the LA Times folks and their Moscow "experts" haven’t made an obvious logical step further: to suggest that the forest fires were actually started by Putin in order to get a step ahead of Medvedev in the presidential race.

Too big of a stretch of imagination? Nah! Consider this: many people in Russia believe that changing the Forest Code four years ago has crippled the country’s ability to fight fires of such a magnitude. The amended Code was rushed through the Duma in 2006, reportedly on Putin’s order. And why would the strategically-minded and carefully-executing Putin do that? Now we know: he was planning "to reclaim Russia presidency" in 2012.

Conspiracy theories aside, deciding who of the two, Putin or Medvedev, is going to be the next president of Russia is a favorite pastime of professional and amateur Kremlinologists. An amateur Kremlinologist myself, I outlined my views a few months ago, and since then, haven’t seen any point in amending them. For, the "official line" — that in 2012 Putin and Medvedev will sit together and decide which of the two will run (and obviously win) — has been the same. As late as early June, speaking to the French media, Putin repeated this line almost literally.

But recently, something has shifted. Speaking with reporters on Monday, Medvedev suddenly swerved away from the "official line":

"It might be Medvedev, it might be Putin, and it might be someone else entirely."

Someone else entirely? What is this supposed to mean? That there will be a third person sitting together with Putin and Medvedev? (Pas de trois, so to speak.) Or that Medvedev isn’t sure that he’s going to show up for such a meeting at all?

One needs to understand that the perennial shuffling of the two-card deck has so far relied on the assumption that both Putin and Medvedev are power-hungry maniacs who would die to become president. But who has tested this assumption? All we know about Putin’s ascent to power in 1999 rather suggests that he became president out of a sense of patriotism and responsibility. Besides, he has served his time. What is there for Putin in the Kremlin again? The inevitable (and potentially riot-triggering) decision to increase the retirement age? The implementation of highly unpopular health care and higher education reforms (postponed by Putin in 2005)? And all that even without the benefit of blaming a "George W. Bush administration" for prior sins (a technique that the Obama administration is still successfully utilizing)! Because for Vladimir Putin, the "George W. Bush" isn’t Dmitry Medvedev; it’s Vladimir Putin himself.

The enthusiasm with which President Medvedev pursues his modernization agenda is viral and gaining traction, and I have no doubt that, given a chance to implement it, Medvedev will happily assume a second term. But it’s not a given, and if Medvedev realizes that the support for his agenda among the elites isn’t reaching a critical mass, what is the point for him to return to the Kremlin? To preside over the clan wars for the next 6 years while watching (and taking blame for) Russia’s accelerating backwardness? Only 44 and in excellent health, Medvedev may decide to sit out and wait until the demand for his modernization supply becomes sustainable. In fact, Medvedev has a chance to become the first Russian bona fide leader of the opposition: by creating, perhaps, his own political party and then criticizing, from the sidelines, his "successor."

Medvedev’s invention of "someone else", unless being a highly unlikely — and highly uncharacteristic for him — slip of the tongue, might actually indicate that neither him nor Putin wants to be the next president. Or, at the very least, this is a bold attempt to improve his bargaining position by showing that there are limits to his desire to compromise and that he’s ready to take a pass, if needed.

And then, it will be up to Putin to look for another successor, something that Putin is unlikely to look forward to, given the cards he will be left with on his hands.

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