|Medvedev keeps mum—Russia's fake politics|
|Friday, 20 May 2011|
WHEN leaders of large countries call news conferences, they usually have something to say. So when the Kremlin announced a few weeks ago that on May 18th Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, would hold his first press conference, on an undisclosed subject, the world's media took notice.
Inside Russia, bloggers and commentators speculated on Mr Medvedev's plans. Would he announce a presidential bid for 2012? Perhaps he might even sack Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, who many expect to return to the presidency next year. Purported leaks of Mr Medvedev's speech did the internet rounds. The timing added to the intrigue: a day before the press conference a Moscow court was due to hear the appeal of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a jailed former tycoon. (In the event, the case was conveniently postponed for a week.)
In keeping with his modernising image, Mr Medvedev held his event at Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management, in an area decreed by the Kremlin to be Russia's Palo Alto. To highlight his openness to the media he picked questions without the aid of his press secretary. The atmosphere was relaxed and lighthearted. The menacing jokes Mr Putin used to make during his press conferences as president were absent. But so was anything of substance. After two hours, the theme of the event remained as elusive as it had been when the president started.'
Asked if he would stand in next year's presidential election, Mr Medvedev laughed. "Ah, at last you have asked this question. I was hoping it would come first, but it only came fourth. My friends, I know that all of you, you here today, and many others too, are waiting to hear some interesting announcements," he said, generating mild expectation that he might actually answer the question. "But you have to realise that political life is not just a show. No? matter how appealing and tempting, a press conference of this kind is not the right occasion for such an announcement."
So what was the point of the exercise? Perhaps it was meant to liven up Russian political life before parliamentary elections in December and next year's presidential vote. In that case it had as much effect as applying revitalising body cream to a corpse. It demonstrated the degradation of Russian politics into a television-based virtual reality where tricks and political "technologies" trump ideas and policies.
As Kirill Rogov, a Russian commentator, said, the press conference again showed Mr Medvedev to be not an independent politician, but a "minder" selected by Mr Putin for his reliability. The failure of the event to generate news was news in itself. Mr Medvedev showed his willingness to continue to perform this role should Mr Putin choose to leave him in the Kremlin.
The prime minister, for his part, seems in no hurry to announce his decision on whether to return to the presidency. Instead he is focusing his attention on reviving the United Russia party, his stalling election machine. It was for this purpose that he recently launched a so-called All-Russian National Front. United Russia has lost much of its credibility, and has been dubbed a party of "crooks and thieves" by Alexei Navalny, a popular anti-corruption blogger and opposition figure. Polls suggest the party would struggle to win a simple majority in parliamentary elections.
None of these distractions will help Russia become a modern and effective state. At his press conference Mr Medvedev dodged a serious question about the future of Russia's troubled north Caucasus, suggesting it was mainly an economic problem rather than one of security, injustice and a crumbling state.
His differences with Mr Putin remain stylistic. It was too early to bring back regional elections (which he helped scrap in 2004), he said, even though most Russians want to choose their own governors and mayors. And he listed among his successes the war against Georgia in 2008. "It was very important for the country? for making it feel strong, whatever interpretation those events received in other countries." Mr Putin can be proud of his protégé.
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