In the fall of 2007, when Vladimir Putin was choosing his stand-in for the Russian presidency, my editor at The Moscow Times got the idea to profile every one of the candidates. It was a pretty long list, maybe eight people in all, and nobody wanted Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev was the short straw, dopey and boring, and even if the Russian press had pegged him as one of the favorites, writing about him seemed like a chore. On Fridays when the editors weren't around, the reporters drank beer in the stairwell and made the ashtrays overflow and argued about the odds.
The golden boy looked to be Sergei Ivanov, the one with the lizard skin and psycho-killer smile, because he was an old Chekist like Putin, an ex-defense minister who had recently been promoted. If anyone was to keep on needling the Americans, Ivanov was the guy. It seems incredible now, but Sergei Naryshkin, the spy-gnome who had worked with Putin in the Petersburg mayor's office, was also near the top of the list. That is how little certainty there was.
I remember liking Vladimir Yakunin's chances, because he had the support of the Orthodox Church and more charisma than all the others put together. He also had something like 3 million employees at the Russian railway monopoly, which he had turned into a business with London IPOs and trains that ran on time. But looking back, it's pretty clear that I had some misplaced ideas about the Russian system. I must have thought that the ability to manage, organize, lead, garner support and avoid scandal were the things that would make the next president.
In fact it was weakness, pliability. This became clear to most of us naive hacks a few months later, when Putin announced that Medvedev was his man. The choice was so obvious in retrospect. More than anything else, Putin needed the ability to take back what he had given without getting his hand bitten off.
He might have counted on dumb loyalty for this (in which case Naryshkin might have been his pick) but power can make the ego swell and old loyalties go soft. So Medvedev was perfect. When his head would get too big, Putin knew he could tell him to go home and get his shine box. What was he going to do, complain to the finance minster? Medvedev had no friends. He just had Putin, his patron. That in any case was the thinking at the time, and now we've reached the point in the political cycle when it's going to be tested.
First we have this whole lame scandal over Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's pilfering old despot in the newsboy's cap. Medvedev wants him out, Putin doesn't yet. He needs Luzhkov's posse to get out the vote in 2012. So it's been back and forth. After Luzhkov's latest deadly sin -- he let Muscovites choke during the wildfires while he went on vacation -- Putin praised him for returning "in good time", when the worst of the hell was over. (In Luzhok's defense, there have been rumors going around that his health is failing, possibly from cancer, and his doctors told him to stay away from the smog or die.) But Medvedev, for the first time, showed a bit of menace: he denounced the mayor and got state TV to slander him. Yesterday the news came on the radio: "Putin has congratulated Luzhkov on his birthday. It is not clear whether Medvedev has done the same. But First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva sent him her best." Oh snap! But seriously, the point is clear: Medvedev don't shine shoes no more.
Then we had this revelation. On September 25, a new "social movement" in support of Medvedev's policies is to hold its inaugural congress, positioning itself as a counterpoint to Putinism ahead of the elections. The party (which everyone has been careful not to call a party quite yet) will have the same title -- Forward Russia! -- as the manifesto which Medvedev published almost exactly a year ago, and which will be the pro-Medvedev platform if he does manage to run.
"This movement can help a lot because Medvedev's supporters are everywhere," one of the more eloquent Duma deputies behind this thing told The Moscow Times last week. (Medvedev's spokeswoman has denied the President's involvement). The basic aim of the project is to promote the modernization drive, which Medvedev has successfully turned into his brand. (This despite Putin's half-assed efforts to co-opt it after he saw that it was getting traction.)
Medvedev's approval ratings (71% as of Sept. 20) and television air time are now about even with Putin's, and only a quarter of Russians believe that he's still Putin's bitch. He is seen as having his own agenda for reforms, independent and vaguely appealing, a westernizer, you see, like a fun-sized Peter the Great. He also has a following among Russia's progressive youth, and one interpretation of Medvedev's police reforms is the creation of a competitor to Putin's FSB.
But none of this, in itself, poses any existential threat to Vladimir Vladimirovich. For the bureaucracy, for the political elites, for the military men and the spies, and for the electorate (if we can call it that), Medvedev might as well be an eggplant on a broom if he really battles Putin for popularity. Or in bare-knuckle politics -- television wars, public emasculation -- Putin is just more clever, shameless and experienced.
So in my opinion, the only real threat could come if pigs fly and the evil genius of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, really decides to choose Medvedev as his candidate. I've been hearing this from people for a few months now, and it's a hell of an image. Putin vs. Surkov. The wars of Olympus. But wait, a bit of background.
When Putin let Medvedev borrow the Kremlin in 2008, he left Surkov to be Medvedev's deputy chief of staff. His mission, first of all, was probably to keep an eye on the goofy placeholder to make sure he wouldn't do anything embarrassing (like advertise the iphone). More importantly, in the four years before Putin was due to return to the Kremlin, they wanted to see how much Medvedev's simple grin and liberal talking points could do for Russia's image among foreign investors. It seems to be doing a lot. Americans are coming around. And the venom toward Russia has turned into sweet nothings from all over the West.
But why should we believe that Surkov is betting on Medvedev? The evidence I've been hearing (from bloggers, analyts) revolves around Surkov's commitment to this modernization drive, which was probably his idea in the first place. In the past year or so, he has emerged from the Wag-the-Dog obscurity of his years under Putin and become the face of Medvedev's Silicon Valley pipedream. (This week he told a meeting at the Ritz that "Technology must become Russia's ideology," a line that Putin has never fancied but Medvedev invokes like a national prayer.) In any case, Surkov is just a little too keen about this new ideology for me to be certain that he is patiently waiting for his old master to return for 12 more years. Surkov isn't the obedient type. And without his exhortation, I don't see where Medvedev could be getting this kind of confidence.
It seems like someone powerful is egging him on, and as Mikhail Nadein pointed out in his column last week: Medvedev can technically do as he pleases. He can take three pieces of paper -- with the first one he can fire Putin, with the second he can appoint a placeholder to head the government (like Zhirinovsky's bodyguard, Nadein writes), and with the third he can dismiss the Duma -- all without breaking the law or asking for anyone's blessing.
That would start a political shitstorm like Russia hasn't seen since 1991, and personally, I still don't think Medvedev would have the balls for such a move; Putin's revenge would be epic and immediate. But if he really does have Surkov as the devil on his shoulder, Medvedev just might be able to pull it off, or at least go fighting into these elections. And then it's Forward Russia all the way to the firing squad.