Russian Presidential election
Medvedev’s first foreign outing
President Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev made his first foreign trip last week since launching his election campaign, accompanying his mentor on a trip to Bulgaria which provided a few clues about the likely next Russian president’s style and character. Our Kremlin correspondent Oleg Shchedrov, who travelled to Bulgaria to cover the trip, reports:
“Shoot them, forget the rest!”, cried the producer of a major Russian broadcaster to his cameraman, during a solemn signing ceremony in Sofia’s presidential palace. He was referring to a timid, curly-haired man who was nearing Putin to whisper something into his ear. In a moment, dozens of top officials and reporters were staring at the two, giggling like fans who unexpectedly ran into a pop star.
Putin remained calm. But Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister who — barring a major upset — will take over from him as president of Russia later this year, blushed like a teenager. He was evidently embarrassed at drawing the media attention away from his boss and mentor, just as Putin was signing an important official document.
There was a good excuse for the odd behaviour of the audience at the key event of Putin’s state visit to Bulgaria on Friday. Less than two months before Russia’s March 2 presidential election very little is known about the 41-year-old former St Petersburg lawyer destined to win the vote after the Kremlin leader picked him as a preferred successor.
Is Medvedev planning to stay long in the Kremlin or he is just a stand-in until Putin decides to come back? Is he a loyal pupil, who will obediently stick to Putin’s legacy after replacing him, or a man with a mind of his own, who might surprise his backers by charting his own course after taking office as Putin did himself eight years ago?
There is no clear answer to these questions and no hope of getting one in a country where the Western-style open political struggles of the 1990s have been replaced by Byzantine Kremlin acts in which every gesture, every word are carefully crafted to produce a needed effect and in which unauthorised leaks of information have been systematically eradicated.
So it’s no wonder that Russia-watchers are scrutinising tiny details of scenarios, body language and words used by participants to try and read the tea leaves.
Putin’s first joint trip with Medvedev after the latter had launched his election campaign, and perhaps the last foreign visit by the incumbent Kremlin leader was a typical example.
To start with, there was no doubt about the message Putin intended to give by taking his preferred successor to Sofia. “Putin introduces Medvedev to the business,” Andrei Kolesnikov, the doyen of the Kremlin press corps, headlined his front page article in the Kommersant newspaper on Saturday.
Soon after the blushing incident, Putin deliberately called Medvedev to him asking for a pen. “It looks like, the president wanted to demonstrate that he cannot do without Medvedev even in minor things,” was Kolesnikov’s verdict.
Their choice of country to visit was also unmistakeable. Bulgaria is perhaps the friendliest of all Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies. Although now a NATO and EU member, Bulgaria retains many positive memories of Russia, including its liberation from the Ottoman rule by Russian troops in 1878. Many Bulgarian leaders speak Russian, which is linguistically very close.
In a further Putin gesture demonstrating Medvedev’s special importance, Medvedev had separate meetings arranged with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, rather than attending their meetings with Putin.
The foreign media in the Kremlin pool was kept at bay from the Medvedev meetings, but one of the Russian members who attended them said Medvedev showed himself to be a good communicator, relaxed and not averse to humour – something which has become one of Putin’s strengths in the final years of his rule.
“There was a bit of confusion, when an official translator tried to help Medvedev and Stanishev, who speaks perfect Russian, at the beginning of their meeting,” she said. “Why don’t we just talk to each other,” Medvedev asked Stanishev with a soft smile, breaking the protocol.
As opposed to Putin’s early appearances, where his KGB past and lack of experience of public communications were evident – for example when he pledged to “smash Chechen guerrillas in a loo”, Medvedev tries to charm his opposite number with a soft style which is natural given his background as a lawyer.
“He looked really nice and refined,” commented a lady from the Kremlin press pool of Medvedev’s performance with Stanishev.
Medvedev’s blushing can be explained by his lack of public experience after spending eight years in Putin’s shadow — despite enjoying what his boss described as a “feeling of comradeship”.
After all, on his first foreign trip to Britain in April 2000 Putin himself went red at a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair when asked by reporter an uncomfortable question about the war in Chechnya he was waging at the time. A bit of training by PR aides and growing self-confidence solved the problem soon afterwards.
Unlike another close Putin aide, Sergei Ivanov, who was himself viewed until the last moment as another possible choice for the preferred successor, Medvedev behaves in a low-key way in the presence of his boss.
During the signing ceremony and a subsequent news conference – the only two events where they turned up together – Medvedev stood separately from other officials of the delegation, but still at a distance from Putin, with his eyes looking down at his boots.
“A perfect icon of a modest disciple,” murmured one reporter sitting nearby.
Picture credit: REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov