The article is by Clifford J. Levy and ran under the headline "Required Reading in Moscow: Tea Leaves."
Kremlinoglogy during the cold war sometimes seemed
to have as much rigor as astrology, offering up
prophesies about an opaque nation by surveying
all manner of ungainly texts, dubious statistics,
retouched photos and back-room whisperings.
Perhaps it was folly to predict the new Soviet
leadership or policies based upon which
apparatchiks clustered around Brezhnev on the
parade stand in Red Square, but what else was there?
You can detect a similar desperation in Moscow
these days in the attempts to divine what
President Vladimir V. Putin has in store for his
nation in the six months before the next
presidential election. While Russia in the Putin
era is a far more open society than the Soviet
state, the inner workings of the Kremlin are as
confounding as ever. Still, the art of
Kremlinology has changed, in ways subtle and not.
Witness the events that buffeted the Russian
government last week, and the theories and
questions and rumors that sprouted in response.
Without warning, Mr. Putin sent his prime
minister into political exile (or did he?) and
installed a shadowy newcomer (does he have
something on the president?), all the while
leaving in place two other potential heirs to the
presidency (why didn't one of them get the prime
minister's job?). Mr. Putin continued to insist
that he will abide by term limits and not run for
president next year (but will he stick to that?).
It was not only the public that was blindsided by
the appointment of the new prime minister, Viktor
A. Zubkov. Members of Parliament from Mr. Putin's
own party, United Russia, appeared to have had no
inkling either, though they did not complain.
Instead they heaped praise on Mr. Zubkov. A
deputy speaker, Lyubov Sliska, told reporters
that Mr. Zubkov's ''entire working life deserves
a Hero of Socialist Labor award,'' apparently
forgetting that such honors fell out of favor around, oh, say, 1991.
Grasping at clues about whom Mr. Putin will
endorse for the presidency, today's
Kremlinologists have updated some of their old
ways. Instead of tracking who stands next to the
party general secretary as soldiers march by,
they meticulously calculate which officials get
the most time on the television news - after Mr. Putin, of course.
And so it was that in recent weeks, pundits
pondering the rivalry between two supposed
presidential heirs - the first deputy prime
ministers, Sergei B. Ivanov and Dmitri A.
Medvedev - were predicting Mr. Ivanov's ascent.
After all, he had increasingly appeared to be Mr.
Putin's favorite sidekick in public. The two even
toured Kamchatka in the Russian Far East together.
On Wednesday morning, a respected newspaper,
Vedomosti, reported that, based on information
from a high-ranking, though anonymous, Kremlin
official, Mr. Putin was about to dismiss his
prime minister, Mikhail Y. Fradkov, and elevate Mr. Ivanov to the post.
The information was half right.
A few hours later, the replacement turned out to
be Mr. Zubkov, an obscure Putin confidant who had
been heading a federal financial crimes agency.
Speculation flared that he was being groomed as a
presidential place holder who would let Mr. Putin
return to office later. Others darkly suggested
that in his job he had obtained compromising
information on officials' finances.
As usual, it was anyone's guess, with the first
question being whether the Vedomosti leak had
been Kremlin disinformation intended to throw the political class off balance.
Nikolay V. Petrov, an expert in Russian politics
at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that if
anything, Kremlinology was more difficult now.
Under Communism, he said, at least the party had
practices that were rigidly followed. It was all
but impossible, for example, to be appointed
prime minister without first rising to
prominence; an obscure official like Mr. Zubkov
wouldn't have stood much chance.
"It is much more closed now, and it's like
studying K.G.B. clans," Mr. Petrov said. "There
is no public evidence. There are few details that
you can see at the surface. And it's hard to construct what is happening."
It could be said that the Kremlin under Mr.
Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, reflects a spy's
penchant for tight-lipped leadership. But Russia,
whether under czars or commissars, never had a
tradition of open government. The word
''Kremlin'' derives from the Russian for
fortress; the government has the nickname because
it is based inside Moscow's medieval walls.
For a time in the 1990s under President Boris N.
Yeltsin, it seemed possible that a more open
government would grow roots here. Still, the
Yeltsin tenure ended with its own intrigue -- Mr.
Yeltsin's abrupt resignation on New Year's Eve
1999 and Mr. Putin's sudden ascension to the presidency.
Now, whatever Mr. Putin's grand plan turns out to
be, this much seems clear: He feels that the more
he reveals, the more he diminishes his own power
in the next presidential succession. Once he
anoints a candidate, he is a lame duck, and he
wants to forestall that as long as possible.
Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin's spokesman, was asked
about the various presidential possibilities. He
smiled and said that almost all were, well, possible.
"If anyone tells you that 'I know!'," he said, "he will be lying."