It was probably not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s intention to launch a fierce presidential battle for 2012 more than two years ahead of schedule. But that might be the unintended outcome of his casual comment at the meeting with members of the Valdai Club that he and President Dmitry Medvedev would “figure it out between ourselves who of us would run in 2012.”
Putin’s statement was a deliberate put-down of Medvedev on Sept. 11, a day after the president posted his “Go Russia!” appeal in which he criticized the order of business that had ossified under Putin’s rule.
Putin’s remark was an unsubtle hint at Medvedev’s limited capacity to make decisions on matters as crucial for him as running for a second term. To imply this a week before Medvedev’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly and a Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh, was to undercut Medvedev’s international credibility. It was a blow to Russia’s image that no amount of schmoozing with members of the Valdai Club could rectify.
Putin left Medvedev no other option but to rush out with a public statement of his own — also made before a foreign audience (clearly, foreigners need to know first) — that he intends to run again in 2012, although this was said tongue-in-cheek.
Putin’s remark mobilized Medvedev’s supporters, like Igor Yurgens, head of the Institute of Contemporary Development, to launch a public campaign to discourage Putin from running in 2012. Yurgens said Putin would look like Leonid Brezhnev if he were to run for president in 2012 and again in 2018, when Putin will be 66.
Despite assurances of political and personal closeness between Putin and Medvedev, they already have ideologically diverging teams who would hate to see their boss yield the right of way.
In 2012 we might see a truly competitive race with a clear choice in strategy for Russia if both of them ran for the presidency. Putin is already in full campaign mode with public events and policy decisions geared to shore up his electoral ratings. Medvedev is busy building his own support base and projecting the image of the nation’s modernizer and an agent of change. Unlike Putin, he still lacks a political party he can call home.
2012 is shaping up as an electoral battle of the giants and another watershed year for Russia.
Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company.