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Much Ado About Nothing: Medvedev Flexes His Presidential Muscles but Demurs about His Political Future

Russia's most burning political question was not answered today, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev frustrated expectations that he would give an announcement on whether he would be running in the 2012 elections. The press conference was Medvedev's first stab during his three years as president at holding the type of public question-and-answer session that was made popular by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his presidency. Yet with little new to say, it remains unclear what Medvedev gained from the much-hyped event in the first place.

Only the fourth journalist who took the microphone today at president Medvedev's eagerly awaited press-conference at Skolkovo brought the discussion to bear on Medvedev's political future and the 2012 elections. Journalists eagerly awaited an answer to the most discussed political question in Russia today, but Medvedev disappointed when he stepped to the plate. "It's not a game. Really, the fate of a huge number of people is in our hands. It can't be some sort of fantasy, or some decision we make in order to somehow gratify our personal ambitions. And my decision about whether or not to announce a candidacy must be based on this fact," said Medvedev. "Such a decision should be made at that moment, when all the preconditions have been met, when such a decision will have a decisive political effect."

The press-conference lasted a pair of hours and featured Medvedev personally moderating and fielding questions from a lecture hall of more than 800 journalists representing Russian and international press organizations. Yet Medvedev's evasive answers to the question of the day set the tone for the event. While there were interesting moments, such as when Medvedev said that Khodorkovsky's release was "not dangerous to society," or when he railed against governors who had been in power too long, the excitement around the event quickly dissipated.

Analysts agreed that for various reasons, the political chemistry at the moment was not right for Medvedev to announce a run for the presidency. Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said that the continuing delay of an announcement from Medvedev shows that he and Putin have failed to meet and agree on the terms for who will run for president next fall. "A one-sided political declaration could lead Medvedev and Putin into a conflict that could bear meaningful losses for both of them and clearly neither of them wants this. For that reason I think that they are inclined to be quite careful right now. Medvedev gave something of a hint today [that he may run in 2012], when he said that he has not given up his presidential prerogatives. But he's made it clear that above all he doesn't want conflict [with Putin]."

A decision made by the two politicians, wryly called Russia's "selection day," is a leading theory for how the country's next president will be chosen. Yet recent evidence of a split between the two politicians has raised the question of whether both might run in the coming elections.

The recent creation of the People's Front political coalition and its allegiance to Putin have given Medvedev a "narrow corridor of possibilities," said Alexander Morozov, the director of the Center for Media Research at the Institute of Cultural History and an influential blogger on politics, which made it politically impossible for Medvedev to announce his candidacy today. "I think that despite whatever signals Medvedev hoped to send today, it is going to be recognized as his refusal to participate in the coming presidential campaigns by the community of experts and journalists. This is going to be a reaction to the press conference in general, his lack of discussion concerning any of the recent political intrigue and of expressing any personal energy in general."

Events beyond the press-conference further conspired to embarrass Medvedev today. A one-week delay of the decision on jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's appeal, which was slated to be handed down this morning, was announced to general laughter in the courtroom. Many believed that the decision was made in order to help Medvedev save face, as any court decision would have forced him to comment on the Khodorkovsky case during the press-conference.

Whether the press-conference played in Medvedev's favor is dubious. On the one hand, it gave him an opportunity to build up his personal appeal among Russians, much as Putin used such press-conferences in the past: Medvedev today joked with reporters about his poor memory and teared up as he discussed poor living conditions for Russia's veterans.

Makarkin noted that Medvedev used the press-conference as the "president's prerogative," saying that he was flexing his muscles as the country's president. "By the choice of format, by placing it at Skolkovo, by showing that he himself was handling the press, Medvedev was showing that he continued to hold the mantle of Russia's presidency. He was showing his importance," said Makarkin.

Nonetheless, Morozov noted that without a new message to match the excitement around the event, overall impressions about the press-conference were disappointing. "At the given moment, when his options were so narrow, and the initiative belongs to prime minister Putin, I simply don't understand why he held this press conference now and not perhaps this fall," said Morozov. "This would have been a good opportunity to discuss the beginning of a new period in Russian politics, but I didn't see anything new in what was said."

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