Required Reading in Moscow: Tea Leaves
KREMLINOLOGY 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.”