Indecision 2012: Are we having fun yet?

Imagine if Hugh Laurie, the actor who plays Dr. House, announced he’d be running for president. And Paris Hilton opted for the post of Prime Minister.

Sounds like a sitcom, but amid the dragging uncertainty of whether President Dmitry Medvedev or his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will run in 2012, that’s pretty much what is happening on Russia’s political stage. According to some analysts, it’s all part of a plan to make Russian elections more fun.

Forget traditional contenders like nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky – this week all eyes were on the tattooed priest-turned-actor Ivan Okhlobystin, who plays the Houselike doctor on Russia’s remake, “Interns”.

© RIA Novosti. / Maxim Li

Ksenia Sobchak wants to be Okhlobystin’s premier, but is she serious?

“After a lot of thought, we’ve reached the decision that I’m going to run for president,” Okhlobystin announced at a Sunday press conference. He did not elaborate as to who he meant by “we”.

“Vanechka, can I be your prime minister?” TV personality Ksenia Sobchak asked him. He gestured a yes, according to a video posted by Komsomolskaya Pravda. Preempting accusations of a political road show, the actor said his intentions were “absolutely serious.”

So serious, in fact, that the former priest is actually planning to run as a man of God. “I’m a religious fanatic,” he said with a smile in an interview with RIA Novosti. “I have no political experience.”

Earlier he said he had several plans – and all of them “coincide with the Russian Orthodox Church. It includes restoring the Empire.”

While Russia’s Church is constitutionally separated from the State, neither Okhlobystin nor the Central Election Committee sees anything wrong with an ordained priest registering as a presidential candidate.

But the Church itself does. Spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin said Monday that a priest cannot run for public office – to which Okhlobystin responded that the Synod should decide. “The Church should consult with power, and then everything will turn out on its own. It’s not we who decide, but God.”

And if the Synod officially bars him from running, he will comply. “The Church is my home,” he told RIA Novosti. A representative of Okhlobystin could not be reached on her mobile phone as of print time.

Imitation democracy?

While part Okhlobystin’s remarks appeared tied with a promotion campaign for his Doctrine 77 – a mysticism-infused roadmap to remake the Russian Empire, which he promised to outline in a September 10 Luzhniki performance that he dubbed “a dreary hour and a half talking session on national-patriotic themes” – they are also clearly playing into a celebrity sideshow to spice up an election season otherwise shrouded in mystery.

Okhlobystin announced his bid virtually on the same weekend as Right Cause leader Mikhail Prokhorov promised to run if his pro-business party got enough votes in the December 4 parliamentary elections. Billionaire Prokhorov was shown Sunday in a televised shouting match with LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who gave Prokhorov his watch just to prove how cheap it was. And soon after Prokhorov’s announcement, the Soviet-era celebrity diva Alla Pugacheva opted to join his party.

© RIA Novosti. / Vladimir Vyatkin

But Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin says a priest can’t run

Problem is, the sideshow is a symptom of a total lack of interest in the real elections, critics say.

“The elections have already been discredited, and this is just a way to imitate parliamentarianism, and it allows us to diagnose the state of society,” writer Dmitry Bykov told The Moscow News. Bykov, together with a handful of oppositionists, founded the Nakh-Nakh: Vote Against All movement – a word play on name of one of the “Three Little Pigs” and a Russian expletive roughly meaning “to hell with it all.” Because Russians no longer have the option of voting against all, the movement is calling on voters to cross out their ballots and write out, “To hell with crooks and thieves.”

But Okhlobystin, Bykov said, is not a protest candidate. “He’s not standing for protest sentiment. He’s standing for ‘I don’t care’ sentiment.”

That, other analysts said, could actually play into government attempts to revive interest in an election process widely viewed as completely disengaged from voting citizens – where decision on who will run (and likely win) are decided behind closed doors in the Kremlin.

“I’m personally acquainted with Ivan Okhlobystin and I think he’s very talented, but in my opinion, this is a project of [first deputy chief of staff Vladislav] Surkov,” independent analyst Stanislav Belkovsly told The Moscow News, referring to the Kremlin ideologist widely seen as orchestrating the political process.

“It’s part of a move to liven up the elections, because they’ve become so boring that they need all the movement they can get,” he said. “Never have the elections descended into such a farce as they have this season.”

With his “national-patriotic themes,” Okhlobystin is convenient for another purpose: streamlining the growing ultra-nationalist sentiment feared by the Kremlin into a manageable, celebrity vector.

And while the chances are slim, Dmitry Bykov warned against dismissing a possible victory entirely.

“He has [political] capital as Dr. Bykov” – who is Russia’s popular answer to Dr. House.

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #69”

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