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    Monday, September 17, 2007

    Russia, explained

    When I read this article in the Week in Review section of The New York Times yesterday, I almost clapped in appreciation. It's the disturbing truth: none of the pundits, journalists (or bloggers) is offering anything more than a best guess when they try and explain what's really going on behind the Kremlin walls.

    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."

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