Andrew Osborn








Will Russia answer the 64,000 rouble question?, 23rd September 2011 16:37

By , Moscow

It is the 64,000 rouble question that is driving Russia's political elite and the Western media up the wall: Who will be Russia's next president.

Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, and the country's most popular and powerful politician? Or President Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin's long-time understudy, self-styled reformer, and gadget addict?

With a presidential election just six months away and a parliamentary election in December, neither of the men (the only two real possible candidates at this stage) have deigned to say whether they will run or not. After all, in what is a de facto one party state there is, for practical purposes, no need to have a long let alone an open contest.

If past outings are anything to go by, the ruling United Russia party will simply announce who it is backing and that person will automatically become the next president of Russia. The lack of clarity on the issue so close to the actual election reflects that depressing reality.

There is, however, a wild card scenario; that both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev will run in order to give the process a patina of democracy where there is in fact none. For now though that seems unlikely, and Vladimir Putin, who has held the job twice before, is looking like the front-runner.

The wily 58-year-old former KGB spy has spent the last few months reminding ordinary Russians of his tip-top physical shape.

Be it bending frying pans, scaling a climbing wall, driving a Harley-Davidson, or scuba-diving in the Black Sea, Mr Putin's message is loud and clear: I'm staying in politics and I'm physically and mentally fit for purpose.

Mr Medvedev, 46, has had a hard time competing with his former mentor. Though younger, he projects a more bookish image and looks more comfortable absorbed in his iPad than inspecting a tank or piloting a jet fighter.

It is important to remember though that the reported competition between the two men is, like much else in Russian politics, largely fake. Although the two men do undoubtedly have different personalities and styles, they essentially sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to policy.

Mr Medvedev faithfully served Mr Putin for years before Mr Putin hand-picked him for the presidency in December 2007. And they are, as they have told anyone who has asked repeatedly, part of the same team. The Russian and Western media have spent the last four years largely unsuccessfully trying to find rifts between the two.

If there have been any serious splits, they have been well hushed up. At the same time, Mr Putin has managed to remain the country's most powerful politician even though he has not, technically, held its top job since 2008. Some Russian analysts contend therefore that it does not matter which of them runs for the presidency.

Putin or Medvedev? What is the difference? What will change? they say with some justification. In a system where a tiny elite jealously guards power and all the key decisions are taken far from the public eye, the sad reality is that the presidential election is little more than a theatrical show for the outside world and Russia's long-suffering people.

And there is nothing more the show's producers like than to keep the people guessing until the very last minute in order to remind everyone who is boss.