It has been a long time since a Russian president’s remarks were awaited as anxiously and with as many expectations as Dmitri Medvedev’s two-and-a-half-hour news conference on May 18, with more than 800 reporters in attendance. In a break from standard practice, no subject was announced by the Kremlin. Russia’s blogosphere filled with all kinds of rumors. Mr. Medvedev will announce that he, not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will run in the 2012 election. He will pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent political prisoner. News agencies even published a supposed “leak” of the president’s remarks, announcing the dismissal of Mr. Putin and the appointment of Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the liberal Yabloko party, as prime minister.
In the end, as is usual with Mr. Medvedev, the mountain has brought forth a mouse. The president did not announce a single major policy, personnel, or campaign decision. Instead of dismissing Mr. Putin’s government, Mr. Medvedev merely reaffirmed his constitutional right to do so. Instead of releasing Mr. Khodorkovsky from prison, the president declared that his release “would not be dangerous.” Instead of announcing his plans for 2012, he said that “such decisions require a different format than a news conference.” “Before the eyes of an entire country Medvedev was committing political suicide,” wrote Lilia Shevtsova, one of Russia’s foremost political analysts, “Why did he go onstage if he had nothing to say? Why produce a gun that does not fire?”
While Mr. Medvedev was speaking to reporters outside Moscow, members of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party in the St. Petersburg legislature voted to revoke the mandate of Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of Parliament and founder of the center-left Just Russia party. The party was established with Mr. Putin’s blessing in 2006 to imitate political competition and to serve, as Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov put it, as the regime’s “second foot” alongside United Russia. But as the government grew increasingly unpopular (a poll in April put disapproval at 50 percent), more and more voters, in the absence of a genuine opposition on the ballot, turned to Just Russia to send the Kremlin a message. Analysts suggested that Mr. Mironov’s party may even win the upcoming legislative election in St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin’s and Mr. Medvedev’s hometown. This, even from an officially sanctioned “opposition,” would have proven a major embarrassment. Just Russia and its founder had to be disciplined. Meanwhile, realizing that United Russia is unlikely to do well on its own, even in a heavily manipulated vote, Mr. Putin announced the formation the so-called “Popular Front,” a supposedly nonpartisan national coalition that he will lead into the December parliamentary elections. Commentators have sarcastically compared Mr. Putin’s “Front” to the “Bloc of Communists and Non-Party Members” formed by Stalin for the Soviet “elections” of 1937.
Perhaps the most meaningful statement from Mr. Medvedev came halfway through his news conference. “My relationship with my colleague and political partner Vladimir Putin … endures already more than 20 years,” he said. “We know and feel each other well. We are really like-minded. Whatever is sometimes said on this topic, we have very similar approaches to the key questions of the country’s development.” Considering the recent trends in Russia’s public opinion, political change will likely be coming. But it will not be coming from Mr. Medvedev.
World Affairs Institute World Affairs Daily
May 19, 2011 12:31:00 PM EDT
In Major News Conference, Medvedev's Message Stays the Same