In a joint interview Monday with Russia's three national television networks, the prime minister said he and President Dmitry Medvedev had agreed to their 2012 job switch four years ago when he tapped his longtime protégé to replace him in the Kremlin.
Medvedev made a similar claim at the United Russia congress last month. But in a speech on Saturday, he offered a somewhat different account.
Speaking at a town hall meeting at the former Red October chocolate factory that has been converted to host digital startups, Medvedev said he and Putin reached their decision to switch jobs after a “sufficiently long analysis" and that it was not arrived at lightly.
"You know, people say they met somewhere in the woods, on a fishing trip, and changed everything, worked out this configuration and then came out with it at the convention -- it’s not that way at all," Medvedev said.
Maybe this "long analysis" happened back in 2007, but somehow I doubt it.
Since the United Russia congress on September 24, I've been trolling through the Russian media looking for clues about how and why the tandem reached their decision. Was Putin's return always the plan? Was Medvedev serving a second term ever a serious consideration? Who was involved in the final decision and what was their reasoning?
And although I am nowhere near being able to draw up a reconstruction, some clues are emerging.
"The simplest thing that can be assumed is that the influence groups that I was talking about turned out to be stronger than those who displayed open or hidden support of President Medvedev," Igor Yurgnes, head of the Institute of Contemporary Development told Gazeta.ru in a recent interview.
That much seems obvious enough? As I blogged recently, there clearly was a battle within the ruling elite and one side won and the other lost. But what tipped the scales?
In a piece in Politkom.ru, Tatyana Stanovaya, director of the Center for Political Technology suggests some plausible answers:
That would mean the trouble started back in early 2010, according to Stanovaya.
This was a time when Medvedev became increasingly assertive.
It was, for example, when his campaign to purge long-serving regional governors began to gather steam. (This process would climax with Medvedev firing Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in September of that year -- a move made despite Putin's deep reservations according to some reports.)
There were also stirrings of dissent in the elite at this time. Yurgens' Kremlin-connected Institute for Contemporary Development released a much-discussed report in February 2010 calling for political reform and democratization.
Also in February, Sergei Mironov, then speaker of the Federation Council, publicly criticized Putin's budget, drawing a fierce response from United Russia. Mironov and his A Just Russia party, originally established as a Kremlin-friendly "pocket opposition" force, became increasingly feisty in the months ahead, culminating in his removal from the Federation Council (and by extension the speakership) in May of this year.
And on March 14, 2010, United Russia suffered embarrassing losses in regional elections, which spooked Putin and much of the elite.
Rumblings of discontent in society also became more visible in 2010, beginning with mass protests in Kaliningrad in January that led to the sacking of Governor Georgy Boos in August.
By late summer of 2010, it appeared that change could be in the air as the authorities badly mishandled raging forest fires, civic groups protested issues like police abuse and the authorities' plans to build a highway through the Khimki Forest outside Moscow.
Meanwhile , musicians like Yury Shevchuk and Noize MC and actors like Aleksei Devotchenko began openly criticizing the authorities.
Medvedev seemed ascendant at this time and Putin, uncharacteristically, appeared defensive and out of touch with the emerging mood.
As 2010 turned into 2011, the trend appeared to accelerate and Medvedev became more confident in pushing his agenda, Stanovaya argued in her Politkom.ru article:
At the beginning of this year, Medvedev began to behave too energetically, which frightened both Putin and his inner circle. It is possible that Medvedev (and his inner circle likewise) had become so convinced of a second term that he was literally rushing to announce this. Putin was evidently not simply waiting; by now he had began to have strong doubts, not hurrying to take apart the entire game of his successor, who in a state of high emotion could prove to be highly destructive, as can now be seen.
In March 2011, Medvedev ordered government officials to resign their seats on the boards of state corporations, a move widely interpreted as an attack on Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.
That same month, Putin and Medvedev openly disagreed over the West's military campaign in Libya. Medvedev even publicly rebuked his mentor for comparing the NATO bombing campaign to a "medieval crusade."
In the end, according to Stanovaya, Putin and his inner circle just considered it too much of a risk to keep Medvedev in the Kremlin for another six years:
Is Stanovaya correct? She is a solid political analyst, I imagine she has good sources, and her account appears to make sense. The one thing that surprised me was the extent that she sees personal conflict between Putin and Medvedev (rather than just between their respective teams, which I always assumed was the case).
Moreover, the reaction of the elite after September 24 suggests a fair amount of discontent, suggesting there was a fierce argument over the 2012 question.
-- Brian Whitmore