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Indecision 2012, Kremlin-style

The latest round of mind games over who will run for Russia's presidency in 2012 has officials scrambling to avoid taking sides ­ and at least four public figures who have promoted either President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin too aggressively have already gotten the axe.

Ahead of Dmitry Medvedev's upcoming May 18 press conference, the first such conference in his three years as president, the Kremlin has terminated a consulting contract with Gleb Pavlovsky.

Pavlovsky is a famous spin doctor who once advised Boris Yeltsin on his 1996 re-election and helped bring Putin to power in 2000. Just this month, Konstantin Zatulin, a senior United Russia official, was ousted from his post first deputy chairman of the State Duma CIS Committee for saying that Putin should run for president. Soon after that, another United Russia official, Alexei Chadayev, was sacked for a report criticising Medvedev's position on Libya.

Pavlovsky, who has heavily promoted President Dmitry Medvedev ahead of the coming elections, says that his political position was the reason his contract was terminated.

"My comments started causing problems for the presidential administration, which I was linked to," Pavlovsky was quoted by Kommersant as saying Wednesday. "Everyone sees me as a pro-Kremlin expert, and the only way to change that was to terminate my contract."

Depending on various sources, the contract was terminated either for technical reasons, or on orders from deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov. Meanwhile, what increasingly seems to be a staged race for publicity is accelerating, with alternating appearances by both members of the tandem shifting the mood and disorienting pundits ­ a game that many analysts say is deliberate. But now, Putin and Medvedev, who previously been seen as promoting themselves, appear to be promoting each other.

President Medvedev raised eyebrows Monday when he visited the offices of the Dozhd TV channel, an independent station broadcast on cable and over the Internet. And while general director Natalia Sindeyeva, who went as far as kissing the president on the cheek at the end of the visit, avoided asking him about his plans for 2012, another question got the president talking about what he wanted to do after his term expired, whether that was in 2012 or 2018.

Pressed about his future plans, Medvedev said he could consider teaching at Skolkovo, the innovation centre in the Moscow region that the President has been promoting as Russia's answer to Silicon Valley. He added that he would also enjoy a job in the media. "You should get big and invite me as a commentator," he quipped.

If the remarks suggested Medvedev was already thinking beyond the presidency towards another career, then Putin's comments on Wednesday during a visit to Stockholm baff led journalists even more. "You will like the decision, you will be pleased," Putin said in regard to who will ultimately run in 2012 during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt.

General neurosis?

Analysts say that remarks like these are meant to disorient the media and generate political intrigue so that more people pay attention.

"In the unspoken primaries [oriented towards Medvedev or Putin] that are de facto taking place among the ruling elite, the question isn't about who the particular group wants to run for president ­ it's about who it expects to run for president," Mikhail Remizov, president of the National Strategy Institute, told The Moscow News.

Considering the conflicting signals, it is hard to figure out how people close to power are to behave.

A United Russia source who spoke on conditions of anonymity described the atmosphere as general "neurosis" with officials scrambling to remain in favour. Indeed, few agreed to speak on the record.

The unwritten taboo among Kremlin consultants is that, in a sort of crypto-monarchical ritual, you don't criticise the leader directly, political analysts say. And if you happen to have inside information about a pending choice, you are forbidden from revealing it.

As the elections approach, such rules are becoming increasingly stricter. But even the oustings themselves may be a means to distract and disorient Kremlin watchers, Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin, who was stripped of his post as first deputy chairman of the State Duma CIS Committee over increasingly pro-Putin remarks, said.

Zatulin believes that the orders to demote him and oust Pavlovsky came from the same office, that of first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, he told The Moscow News. As such, Pavlovsky's ousting was just another trick.

"This is explained by Surkov's desire maintain loyalty to both members of the tandem," Zatulin said. "[Surkov] is showing that they are not just firing people over a pro- Putin position, they're firing them for having a pro-Medvedev position."

Market response

With little factual knowledge available and decisions depending exclusively on the two members of the tandem, so far it's only officials and the media that are really concerned over scrambling for favour. The financial market is taking this ongoing neurosis in stride.

"Politics has suddenly become an issue again, not because the elections are coming up, but because there is infighting," Roland Nash, chief strategist at Verno Capital, told The Moscow News.

"The business community knows that it doesn't know what is going on," he said. "It knows that it's in Medvedev's and Putin's interests to maintain stability. It's choosing to ignore [what's happening]."

Amid the uncertainty, Russian investors are indeed taking their money out of Russia ­ but it's unclear what the elections have to do with that, he said. And while foreigners tend to take the political theatrics at face value, there's a large volume capital continuing to come into Russia.

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