When I started this column I promised to dig behind the headlines, “to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.” But some of the news has been so weird of late, that there’s been no need to root around in the underground.
Now, usually I’m about as interested in Kremlin politics and the speeches of politicians as I would be in, say, a plate of cold rat tails for breakfast, but Dmitry Medvedev, you know, Russia’s president, has been acting so oddly that even I have been forced to pay reluctant attention.
So what’s he been doing that’s so strange? Well, this – Medvedev has yet to make up his mind whether to run for a second term in presidential elections scheduled for next March.
“So what?” you might ask. "He’s only human. Perhaps he’s fed up with the workload? Maybe he wants to quit so he can dedicate himself to working on his famed collection of heavy rock vinyl?" (A worthy goal, by the way. And he already has all the Deep Purple LPs)
But no, Medvedev would, as he himself admits, like to have more time in the Kremlin to carry out his much touted – yet so far embarrassingly ineffective – reforms. The only thing is, he hasn’t been given permission to run yet. Not that he’s said that in so many words, but it’s a pretty open secret that Medvedev will not stand if his mentor and the man who picked him for the post four years ago wants his old job back. That’s former president and current premier Vladimir Putin, of course.
So, this is the absurd situation we have. The leader – nominally at least – of the world’s largest country isn’t even in control of his own destiny. That’s as strange as anything I have written about over the last year or so. I’m not even sure if Daniil Kharms, Russia’s greatest ever writer, could have thought up anything quite this bizarre.
Of course, both Putin and Medvedev dress up this humiliating situation for the prez with lots of clever stuff about how they will have to jointly make the right decision for the country, etc. But even they must know that’s fooling no one. (Unless, of course, their advisers are telling them the opposite – “It’s working! It's fooling everyone!”)
So when’s this decision due? Well, the longer it goes without Putin dropping the word, the more it looks like it’s the ex-KGB man who is on his way back to the Kremlin. After all, if Putin announces his intention to stand too early, Medvedev will be nothing but a lame duck until spring comes around.
That’s what the analysts say, anyway. But I can’t help think that his inability to act makes Medvedev irrelevant right here and now. Maybe that’s why I can never concentrate on a word he says whenever he pops up on the screen. (There just always seems to be something more interesting happening – a hint of a noise three or four streets away, a tired fly on a neighbor’s balcony, you know the stuff.) And MAD (Medvedev Attention Disorder) seems to be spreading, if conversations with ordinary folk here are anything to go by.
Of course, the longer we go without a decision, the more analysts start engaging in the kind of Kremlinology that most people thought had died out in the Soviet era: reading between the lines, in other words, attempting to find meaning in vague and often essentially meaningless statements and actions.
Like, for example, Putin’s recent throwaway comment when he was asked what he would do immediately after the polls. His answer? “Have a wash, both in the literal and political sense of the phrase.” Cue much speculation that he was going to stand, because how could he get dirty if he wasn’t going to take part? Or that the election campaign would be dirty. (How a one-horse race can be dirty though, I’m not entirely sure.)
Did Putin put as much thought into his answer as went into the analysis of it? I doubt it. And that's just one example. Things have been going on like this now for months. And who knows how much more of this we have ahead of us?
So there you go. Some weirdness from the world of high-level politics. Next week, I promise, business as usual. Some stuff you’ve never heard of and likely never will again. Unless the “proper news” stays weird, that is.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).