NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED TO CORRECT DATE OF OPENING OF NEW STATE DUMA AND TO ADD DMITRY PESKOV'S COMMENTS
Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin
announces plans to form a new liberal party. Billionaire mogul Mikhail Prokhorov
and Irkutsk Governor Dmitry Mezentsev
jump into the presidential race. Outgoing State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov
says he will not return to the lower house.
The flurry of insider activity over the past several days appears to suggest that the ruling elite is trying to regain its footing in the aftermath of the December 4 election debacle and ensuing mass protests.
For the past two weeks, the opposition has had the initiative and has been setting the agenda. Now the Kremlin wants it back.
The first hints about where things may be going should come on December 15 when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds his annual televised live call-in program, when carefully vetted ordinary citizens get a chance to ask the national leader any previously approved question they desire.
Other dates to watch
are December 21, when the new State Duma convenes and December 22, whenPresident Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to make his last state-of-the-nation speech.
These events will follow on the heels of the scheduled December 20 release from jail of anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and Solidarity leader Ilya Yashin, both of whom were given 15-day sentences after being detained during protests on December 5.
The Duma opening and Medvedev's speech also come just days before mass protests scheduled for December 24.
So, assuming they have formulated a plan, where are Team Putin likely to try to take things now? How do they plan to regain the initiative?
Some interesting speculation surfaced on Wednesday. And fair warning, this is only speculation (albeit of the reasonably informed type).
That said, check out this bombshell
from a research note by Vladimir Tikhomirov and Thomas Mundy of the investment firm Otkritie Kapital (h/t to my colleague and RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Tom Balmforth for flagging this):
We expect that in a week’s time the Medvedev-Putin ruling tandem will announce another important decision regarding the tactics of the presidential campaign. We do not rule out that President Medvedev could step down from the Presidency, which would automatically transfer his duties to the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Under this scenario Mr. Putin would no longer be required to resign his premiership during election campaign as he takes on presidential duties. Legally, he would be allowed to retain those roles until the inauguration of a president in early May 2012.
Whoa! My initial reaction to this was, to say the least, skeptical. What led me to give it another look was the fact that Otkritie Kapital is a serious player (it is partially owned by the state-run VTB, Russia's second-largest lender) and Tikhomirov is its chief economist.
Tikhomirov and Mundy note that according to Russia's electoral law, Putin will need to relinquish his post as prime minister three days after he is officially registered as a candidate for president -- which should be sometime early next week.
Putin submitted his papers on December 7 to the Central Election Commission, which then has 10 days -- until December 17 -- to register him. Putin then has three days to resign as prime minister -- until December 20, the day before the new Duma convenes and two days before Mevvedev's speech.
So is this the plan? I honestly have no idea. It has received
in the media
, prompting a curt denial
from Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. "The situation on the financial markets is a difficult one.Not all financial analysts manage to maintain mental sobriety," Peskov said. "Putin continues to work as chairman of the government. If any events have an entirely campaign-related nature, he will take a vacation," he said. "But on the whole he will carry out his day-to-day duties as prime minister. He does not have to take any vacation."
Nevertheless, if the Kremlin does decide to go down this road -- and again, it's a very big if -- an important question remains: How will this play with the tens of thousands of protesters expected to take to the streets on December 24 in Moscow and other cities?
Given the fact that the protesters have made it clear that they are fed up with all the Kremlin's insider games, it will likely do very little to calm the increasingly restive "Russian street."
-- Brian Whitmore