After Dmitry Medvedev's uninspiring state-of-the-nation address on November 30, the political obituaries rolled off the presses as if on cue.
"Disappointment: The President's Speech Failed To Meet Expectations," lamented the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta." In a similar vein, the headline on gazeta.ru read: "Medvedev Clears The Way For Putin."
And the online Yezhednevny zhurnal, ridiculing the president's focus on children's issues, offered this harsh assessment:
Expectations were indeed high for Medvedev's speech. The preparations for the annual address were shrouded in secrecy and there were hints that the president was considering announcing sweeping changes.
On November 16, "Vedomosti," citing Kremlin officials and a leaked document, reported that Medvedev was considering redrawing Russia's administrative map, replacing the current 83 regions and republics with 20 super-regions centered on major cities.
Speaking on his video blog on November 23, Medvedev criticized the Russian political system as "stagnant," adding that it needed more competitive elections, a more engaged opposition, and a more responsible parliamentary majority.
On the day of the speech, Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Center for the Study of Post-Industrial Society, argued in an article in "Izvestia" that Medvedev was poised to win reelection in 2012:
Medvedev can count on the majority of Russians who understand, just as he himself does, that without these reforms Russia will forever remain a larger analog of Venezuela. What Medvedev needs at this point is knowledge that he has the kind of support he needs...
The way I see it, Medvedev has everything he needs to win a free and fair election in 2012.The president we have rules the country that does not demand changes as yet but that expects them nevertheless. I have faith in Medvedev and in his ability to live up to these expectations.
So why did the speech disappoint so much?
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Rostislav Turovsky, a professor of political science at Moscow State University, as saying that the lackluster speech "reflects the uncertainty surrounding the presidential election," adding that Medvedev "lacks the resources and the will" to launch his reelection bid in earnest.
The underlying assumption here is that there is some epic power struggle going on between Medvedev and Putin for the post-2012 presidency. But I just don't see such a struggle going on in the tandem (there is, however, clearly deep and enduring tension between the two men's respective teams).
As I have blogged here repeatedly, I think the Putin and Medvedev are on the same page and that Plan A -- at this point -- is for Medvedev to serve a second term, albeit under Putin's watchful eye. That said, with the election 15 months away, everybody wants to keep their options open in case it becomes necessary to switch to a Plan B.
We've been watching this song and dance for the better part of the past two years. Every time Medvedev gets assertive and raises his profile, the inevitable chatter follows that he is eclipsing Putin. When Putin resurfaces to take center stage -- as he will tonight with his interview with Larry King on CNN -- the buzz that Medvedev is getting slapped down comes back with a vengeance (see my recent post here, outlining the trend).
If it looks orchestrated that is because it probably is. And we'll probably see a lot more of it over the next year.
-- Brian Whitmore