The end of discussion?

Friday, 29. April 2011     0 comment(s)
Katri Pynnöniemi
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

The “Potemkin villages”, according to president Medvedev, “are no use to anyone”

A good example of recent speculations is the debate around Putin’s speech at the State Duma in April 20, 2011: what does it tell about the forthcoming presidential elections?

Some analysts have downgraded importance of the speech, saying that it was merely a report about the government’s achievements during the past year. But most of analysts seem to agree with Nikolai Petrov’s conclusion that Putin is “not planning to continue as prime minister”. Judging by the lack of details in the speech on how government would increase revenues to pay for all the planned spending, Petrov argues that voters are given a positive image of the outgoing prime minister and the most likely next president of the country. Also commenting on the speech, liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov draws comparison between Putin’s performance and that of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Ryzhkov points out that while painting a colorful picture of the possible future, Putin keeps silence about the real problems in today’s Russia.

In his two-hour long speech Putin argued that Russia would need another ten years of stable development to become one of the five world’s biggest economies. The underlying message was that this could be achieved without major change of the rules of the game. This was same point Putin made in a press conference in Stockholm, where he emphasized that “it is still too early to talk about it [presidential elections]”. To downgrade the ‘fuss’ about the elections even more, Putin added that “the time will come and we’ll make a decision. Don’t worry – you’ll like it”.

On the same day of Putin’s visit to Stockholm, President Medvedev visited the town of Lytkarino ten kilometers southeast of Moscow. This visit would have hardly made elsewhere than the state TV channels had Medvedev not decided to respond to reports which appeared in the Russian internet before his visit. Bloggers posted online reports showing that the local officials had ordered the old and dilapidated buildings to be covered up with freshly painted fences. In Lytkarino Medvedev stood against this practice of building “Potemkin villages” that, according to president, “are no use to anyone”.

So, on the same day, the two leaders of the tandem appeared in public with two opposite messages. Putin with his cryptic statement about the decision that he has already made but that should not be spoken about. And Medvedev, who in response to the internet-audience, makes case against “Potemkinization” of Russian politics.

Perhaps this example tells that schism within the tandem is merely an illusion incepted by the Kremlin spin-doctors, as for example Stanislav Belkovsky argues. At the same time, several analysts and reports, for example one by the Center for Strategic Research Foundation, or by Nikolay Petrov in March 2011 point to the same direction: the era of stability in the Russian politics is over.

This situation reminds me of one scene in Gogol’s masterpiece novel, Dead Souls. The novel opens with the following exchange between two muzhiks “in a certain provincial capital” at which Chichikov, the main character, arrives.

“Look at that, will you?”, says one muzhik to another. “What a wheel! What do you think, would that wheel make it to Moscow, if need be, or wouldn’t it? “It would,” answered the other. And with that the discussion ended.

The tandem will most likely make it to elections. But the public discussion what comes after has not ended – quite the contrary – it has just began.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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