The discreet candidate

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Finally, President Putin has decided once again to keep his cards under his sleeve up to the last minute.

The ‘solidly backed’ rumour was that Vladimir Putin would announce his position concerning the 18 March presidential elections in October. Some Russian analysts even had the precise date. According to an ‘informed source close to the Kremlin’, he would make it known at the World Festival of Youth and Students, in the second half of the month.

There is even a political explanation for selecting this Festival – namely that Putin is aware of the generational gap if, at the age of 65, he is again a candidate. Indeed, he has made numerous declarations lately about the need to pay more attention, and offer more opportunities, to the younger generations.

He has also let it be understood that he had no reasons to hurry about declaring his position since the presidential campaign starts officially only in early December. And he can expect to be bombarded with questions at the Valdaï gathering of Russian and foreign experts late this month.

The question is: why to keep up the mystery?

The most obvious answer could be that he is still undecided. But we know from his own declarations that previous decisions on such matters were taken well ahead of being made public. These include, notably, his decision to run for a third mandate in 2012 instead of President Dmitri Medvedev.

The corollary is that even part of his entourage might wonder whether he is the right candidate when long-time supporters, still ready to vote for him, nevertheless yearn for changes and complain of stagnation. By postponing his decision, Putin is showing he is still the master, and that that if some seek to challenge him, they are obliged to adopt an open, and doubtless costly, exposure of their ambition. In other words, today it is too dangerous and in early December it would be too late

Common sense (not always the best way to analyse) Russian events suggests Putin has no interest in declaring his candidacy too early.

If a candidate, he has to decide whether he will do so as a member of United Russia, which held a congress in early December – or whether he will present himself as an independent candidate. The first option would stabilise the party, which has been strengthened by its unexpected performance in September’s local and regional elections. The second would reinforce his favorite profile as the man of “all Russians”, above parties and affiliations.

This would also a way to shorten the campaign, leaving less time for opponents to organise their own campaigns – something the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has understood well enough, organising rallies of support when he is not even sure of being accepted legally as a candidate. It also reduces the time available for street demonstrations, because immediately after an announcement in December people will have to brace themselves for the end of the week of New Year celebrations.

All this leaves open the difficulty of giving credibility to “democratic elections’ if the only opposition candidates are Gennadi Ziuganov (for the communists), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (for the LDPR) and Grigori Yavlinsky (for Yabloko). It would look a third age contest, with figures of the late eighties fighting a 65-year old president who has been in the Kremlin since 2000. So he needs younger opposition members rejecting any compromise with him, for fear of being called traitors, which give them no chance to win but provide an ‘open’ election.

In short, the paradox is that the Kremlin has not only to agree on its candidate, or an approved heir, but also on a credible opposition alternative.

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