I can't deny that professional tandemologists who interpret every public address by the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a sure sign of his intent to run for president in 2012, are at least consistent. However, being consistent doesn't necessarily mean being consistently right. Putin is known for his habit to never disclose his plans until the very last minute. And what are the tandemologists endlessly telling us? That Putin — again! – fleshed out his plans for the next year. To the folks who believe they can read Putin's mind, I'd like to remind a famous line by the former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan: If I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said."
Besides, is there any reason not to trust Putin's own words? Whatever one might think about him, lying for the sake of political expediency isn't in Putin's character. During his presidency, Putin has maintained that he wasn't going to change the Constitution in order to run for a third term. At the same time, he kept repeating that sometime in 2007 he will endorse a “successor.” This is exactly what happened: in December 2007, Putin threw his weight behind the current president Dmitry Medvedev. So, when Putin says that he'll make "the 2012 decision" after consultations with Medvedev, I'd take his words at face value: regardless of the exact time Putin makes up his mind, the Decision will be presented to the country as a joint Putin-Medvedev's decision.
Consequently, when I read that "Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's speech to the State Duma…had the ring of a political manifesto ahead of the 2012 presidential elections," I wasn't convinced at all. Here is why. On April 15, Putin asked the leadership of the United Russia party to focus on the upcoming December Duma election. Yet on April 20, when speaking to the Duma, he supposedly presented a "political manifesto" for the presidential election almost a year away from now (March 2012). Does anyone see logic here? I don't. Besides, if for whatever reason, Putin did want to present a presidential campaign "manifesto", why would he choose such a boring venue? He could go on TV and hold one of his trade-mark "town hall" meetings; instead, he used his annual address to the parliament (with deputies caught sleeping during the speech) that no one outside the Duma, except for the tandemologists, listens to. Does anyone believe that Putin lost his political senses? I don't.
That said, I do see elements of a "political manifesto" in Putin's Duma speech: he indeed articulated the contours of his United Russia party's platform ("modernization without experimentation") for the next Duma election. In so doing, he chose both perfect timing (approximately 4 months before the official start of the campaign) and place (the floor of the Duma itself).
It appears to me that Putin likes the way the whole election cycle was organized back in 2007 – with United Russia first winning the parliamentary election and then nominating a presidential candidate – and wants to repeat the pattern in 2011. But this poses a serious problem for President Medvedev if he runs for re-election. As one of the few Russian politicians who understand the real value of election platforms and electoral slogans, Medvedev wants "the 2012 decision" to be announced as soon as possible, ideally, in the coming weeks. He realizes that a priori, his modernization agenda ("modernization through liberalization") lacks broad support among the paternalistically-oriented Russian electorate. Medvedev therefore needs time to mobilize disciples and sympathizers of his vision of Russia's future. He also needs time to create an election campaign team capable of transforming an abstract idea of modernization into a set of campaign slogans appealing to the voters.
Starting this process in December will be way too late. Medvedev will have no other choice as to use the election campaign machinery provided to him ("forced on him" would be a better term) by Putin and United Russia. The “edinorosses” made it already very clear that they prefer having Putin as their presidential candidate; however, they will certainly nominate Medvedev if told so by Putin. But for Medvedev, there will be a price to pay for United Russia's support, and pieces of his modernization program will be used as a currency in this transaction.
Medvedev does have a choice: if the Decision is postponed until December, he may decide not to run for re-election at all. Only 45 and in excellent health, Medvedev has a luxury to sit out a couple of election cycles while waiting until the public demand for his modernization supply becomes sustainable. His recent comments about future life outside the Kremlin show the common sense, self-confidence and intellectual maturity. Should he focus on Skolkovo, as he hinted he might, any future success coming out of this enterprise will serve as an investment into Medvedev's political future. In parallel, Medvedev could create his own political party (or take the helm of the liberal Right Cause) and then criticize his "successor" from the sidelines.
Such Medvedev's move will completely turn the tables on Putin. Putin will either have to find a suitable "third" candidate or, worse, run for president himself.