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Friday, May 11, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Putin's reason to skip Group of Eight summit in U.S. is puzzling

By Kathy Lally
The Washington Post

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin's decision to skip the Group of Eight summit at Camp David, Md., next week suggests Russia's president has encountered unfamiliar challenges in the first days of his new term, compelling him to hunker down and demonstrate who is in charge.

Only Putin knows why he chose to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the long-planned summit in his place, but the fast-moving events in Moscow in the past few days have provoked intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

By one account, Putin has had to rethink the shape of his Cabinet because of continuing protests, and so must remain in Russia. Other theories see him as peeved by the United States — when at a disadvantage, he often resorts to anti-Americanism — or avoiding the international stage at a moment he appears thrown off stride.

One insider says it would be wrong for him to make a U.S. trip before visiting more loyal allies.

Putin's return to the presidency turned bumpy Sunday, when an unexpectedly large number of demonstrators gathered in Moscow to protest his inauguration the next day.

The march ended in clashes with riot police and an admonition from the U.S. State Department about the mistreatment of peaceful protesters.

On Tuesday, the usually compliant state Duma confronted Medvedev with questions about his accomplishments as president before approving his nomination as prime minister with a two-thirds vote, support that looked anemic to Putin, who had nominated him and rarely encounters resistance.

Putin told President Obama in a telephone conversation Wednesday that he would be too busy working on a new Cabinet to leave the country next week, even though it is Medvedev's responsibility to form a Cabinet and present it to Putin for his approval.

The two men have also had weeks to make Cabinet picks as they headed toward their long-arranged exchange of positions Monday.

And so speculation began that Putin has been mediating a battle among the power groups that support him. High-level jobs in Russia are widely regarded as guaranteeing access to wealth, and those who hold them must wield enough authority to protect the movement of money through their offices.

"The Cabinet is about money flows," said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, "controlling them, guaranteeing them, making sure that the right people get the right measure of control."

Trenin discounted the idea that Putin was deliberately slighting Obama, pointing out he has agreed to meet with him at a Group of 20 meeting in Mexico in June.

"In a country where interclan rivals are managed by one man, it looks like managing them this time is more difficult than people, and maybe even Putin himself, thought," Trenin said.

Medvedev's unimpressive confirmation vote probably set off a reappraisal of the Cabinet jobs, especially for police and other "power" ministries, said Mark Galeotti, a longtime student of Russian security issues who is the academic chairman of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime political analyst, suggested Putin had many reasons for anger and had to take it out on someone.

"My reading of this is that Mr. Putin was so obsessed with the unfavorable reaction of Muscovites to his coronation that he had to find some whipping boys," he said.

Even though Putin hand-picked Medvedev for the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against term limits, he resented Medvedev's ascent, Piontkovsky said.

"Kicking Mr. Medvedev off to America just when he is supposed to be deciding on the Cabinet demonstrates to everyone, to the public, to the elites, to everyone seeking any kind of position, that he's the boss and he's the only person who matters," he added.

Such theories were dismissed by Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, who has been a Kremlin adviser. Putin made a logical decision, he said, considering that his first foreign visits should be made to his most important allies, like China.

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